At the Beginning

1758 to 1840's - The foundation of Pittsburgh Musical Culture is Established

Marching to the sound of Scottish bag pipes and drums, English troops under the command of General Forbes took from the French Fort Duquesne at the mouth of the Ohio on November 25, 1758.  The following day Forbes renamed the surrounding village Pittsburg.   The early Scotch, Irish, Welsh, English, and German immigrants who settled Pittsburgh brought their folk, religious, and classical music with them laying the foundation for the development of Pittsburgh's popular, classical, and jazz music traditions.  William Evans, The Peter DeClary, Edward Tyler, the Harmonist Society, W.C. Peters, Hebert Kleber, John Mellor, and others fostered the music culture of Pittsburgh by teaching music lessons, giving performances, composing music, opening music stores, and establishing musical societies. 

In its early years Pittsburg was a small trading outpost with only a few hundred residents.  Early settlers gathered at Fort Pitt for recreation which included music.  Beginning in 1763 one of the bastions of the fort was used for concerts, balls, plays, and comedies.  British officer were responsible for establish cultural activities in occupied colonies.  Concerts were given by military bands.  Several concerts were given at the Fort during the Revolutionary War. In the 1780's Pittsburgh was inhabited mostly by Scotch and Irish settlers who danced jigs and reels to the tune of the fiddle.  A fiddler named Crowder performed at fairs on Grant's Hill.  Public balls were held at Fort Pitt.  The Gaztte newspaper, found in 1786, ran advertisements in the 1780s and 1790s for dance masters who taught country dances and city cotillions.

Early Pittsburghers were entertained in village taverns and at private homes by musicians and actors.  Around 1786 A British chorister named Edward Tyler came to Pittsburgh to teach sacred vocal music and lead a chorus of singers that performed at McCullough's tavern.  The Black Bear Tavern was a popular spot for chamber concerts and plays during the 1970s. Mr. Carr’s tavern offered vocal concerts by Thomas Sheldon, a founder of the city’s first orchestra association the Appolonian Society. Music could also be heard at Mr. Morrow’s Tavern and at William Irwin’s Inn.  The Welsh immigrants held singing festivals, called “cymanfa ganu”.  As the population grew professional organists were recruited to Pittsburgh to work in the new churches.  The organists organized choirs and taught music lessons.

Forty years after the naming of Pittsburgh in 1800 the population of Allegheny County reached 15,000.  The great room of the county courthouse constructed in 1799 in market square became the Pittsburg's concert hall and theater. Over the next decade comic operas and plays were performed at the court house. Pittsburg's first theater troupe performed a comic opera, "The Poor Soldier" at the court house in 1803.   The pupils of music instructor Peter Declary began to give recitals in 1799 at the court house and at taverns charging 50 cent admissions. One of the first known music teachers in Pittsburgh, Peter Declary, lead vocal, violin, and piano concerts of his students beginning around 1799.  A dry goods merchant by profession, he billed himself as the "Music  Master of Pittsburgh",  He taught music until the 1820's and helped found the Pittsburgh Music Society.      

The Harmonist Society, who immigrated from Germany, established the village of Harmony along the banks of the Connoquenessing near what is now Zelienople in 1805.  Classical music was a big part of the society's leisure activities.  Christopher Mueller organized the society's orchestra, wrote and arranged music, commissioned original works, and started an apprentice system for experienced musicians to train young students.  The Harmony orchestra performed frequently in Harmony entertain Western Pennsylvanias   The society moved to Economy near present day Ambridge in 1824. In Economy they built the large Feast Hall performance space, grew their orchestra, commission original music, and to gave frequent performances.  By 1830 the Harmonist  Orchestra was one of the largest music ensembles in America and had a repertoire of 300 pieces.

Attorney Charles von Bonnhorst, who emigrated from Prussia to Pittsburgh around 1806, was a skilled violinist and composer.  He wrote more than 50 works for the Harmonist Society Orchestra.

Samuel H. Dearborn along with Frederick Amelung founded the first musical society in Pittsburgh in 1807 called the Apollonian Society.  The Apollonians, directed by Deaborn performed popular songs, marches, and classical music by Bach, Mozart, and Haydn.  Deaborn was a portrait painter who turned to music and theater when he could not find work as a painter in Pittsburgh. John Frederick Amelung was a glass manufacturer.. The society, a subscriber supported organization, consisted of a dozen instrumentalists and vocalists who practiced weekly and performed at the court house and at private homes.

Williams Evans, who arrived in Pittsburgh around 1810, built a planer shop.  But music was his passion.  He was a composer, instrumentalist, and music teacher.   Over the next forty years, he taught singing and instrumental music to Pittsburgers, conducted classical musical performances, and founded the Pittsburgh Musical Society (a forerunner of the Pittsburgh Symphony).

By 1812 as Pittsburgh began to produce large quantities of iron, brass, tin and glass products, its population and its appetite for entertainment grew.  The city’s first theater “Theater on Third” opened in 1812 with 400 seats on the corner of Third and Smithfield Street. It ran theatrical productions of touring companies until the 1830s when the build was sold for scrap lumber.  Charles Rosenbaum began manufacturing piano-fortes in Pittsburgh around 1814 advertising them for sale in the Gazette for prices of  $250 to $300..

W.C. Peters, a English born composer/arranger, who was fluent on organ, piano, flute, and violin arrived in Pittsburgh around 1825.  He earned his livelihood giving concerts, leading choirs, playing organ in churches, and teaching music.  He may have been Pittsburgh's first professional musician.  Among his music students where Stephen Foster's older sisters.  The Harmonist Society commissioned W.C. to write orchestral works. His two-movement “Symphony in D” performed by the Harmonist Orchestra 1831, according to some historians, may have been the first symphony composed and performed in America. 

The Pennsylvania Canal was completed in 1830’s, reducing the time to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from 3 weeks to 3 and 1/2 days, made it much easier to ship pianos and instruments to Pittsburgh.  In 1831 the first two music stores opened in Pittsburgh.  W.C. Peters and John H. Mellor established what would become “the C.C. Mellor” store on Wood Street.  Herbert Kleber opened the “Sign of the Harp” music store on Third Street.  Both stores sold pianos and other instruments along with teaching music lessons.   The families of Stephen Foster and Etherbert Nevin purchased instruments, music, and lessons from these merchants.

Pittsburgh population reached 12,000 in 1830 with 10,000 more living in surrounding towns.  Downtown Pittsburgh hosted theater and musical events in several large assembly halls like the Masonic Hall of Wood Street and Mr. Bonds Concert Hall along with "William Chapman's Floating Theater" built on a large keel boat. But the city fathers felt that Pittsburgh needed a more state of the art theater like those being built in other cities.  An elegant new venue for theatrical and musical performances was opened in 1833: The Pittsburgh Theatre on Fifth street.  Furnished in velvet and brass it held 1,200 seats with two tiers of boxes.  it later became known as the Old Drury Theater.  Francis Wemsys, a London born actor, came to Pittsburgh to run the new theater. He quickly established the theater as a cultural destination offering plays, musical events, and operas. Wemyss produced "The Barber of Seville" in 1838, the first full length opera performed in Pittsburgh.  One of the early actors to perform there was Thomas Dartmouth Rice who later originated the minstrel character Jim Crow.

In 1844 the Pittsburgh Public Schools becomes the 3rd school system in the United States and the 1st in Pennsylvania to institute required music education.  Teacher L,P, Lincoln is hired to teach the Pestalozzian music method.  At the time there were 14 schools in Pittsburgh with 1,400 students and 19 teachers.  D.L. Bingham was hired as a vocal instructor in 1847.  Bingham led a performance of 700 students at Pittsburgh's Anthenaem Hall in 1847. He established an annual spring music concert series called the Grand Floral Concerts that was performed by hundreds of students.

In the 1840’s Pittsburgh’s growing working class thirsted for popular variety show entertainment.  To met this demand there was a boom in construction of new venues over the next two decades including the Melodeon Theatre, Layayette Hall, Foster’s Gaieties, Trimble’s Variety, Vierheller’s Concert Garden, Wilkens Hall, Sefton’s Opera House, The Pittsburgh Opera House, the Academy of Music, the new Masonic Hall, and the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon that launched the career of Stephen Foster.  Between 1840 and 1865 there was a 500 percent increase in Pittsburgh’s theater capacity.  Pittsburgh now had dedicated playhouses, 25 stages, several concert saloons, and four assembly halls.  One of the factors driving the demand for entertainment minstrel show craze of the 1840s.

Minstrels show featuring white performers in black face performing “Negro songs” or “Ethiopian music began to appear in Pittsburgh at venues such as the old Masonic Hall in the 1820s.  It was out and out shameful racist music in the hay day of slavery. It was American culture at its worst. White men parodied black Americans as less than human singing and dancing fools.  Minstrel music became the rage in the 1840s when singer-dancer Thomas Dartmouth Rice (T.D. Rice) developed the character Jim Crow and wrote the popular song “Jump Jim Crow”.  Some histories report that the Jim Crow character was originated by Rice when he was performing in Pittsburgh.  W.C. Peters, who owned a music store in Pittsburgh published the first sheet music for “Jump Jim Crow”.  Rice became known as the "Father of American minstrelsy."  Using Rice’s ideas several popular minstrel group were formed and the format of the minstrel show was created.  Black face performers sat in a semicircle with the tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) at one end, and the bones player (Mr. Bones) at the other.  The performers sang Ethiopian melodies with harmonized choruses, danced, and exchanged jokes.  The most popular groups of the era, the Christy Minstrels and the Sable Harmonists appeared frequently in Pittsburgh.  They popularized several of Stephen Foster’s early songs. Pittsburgh has its own resident minstrel troupe, the Nightingale Ethiopian Opera Company that performed at the Masonic Hall.

It was an ugly period in Pittsburgh's music history. But during the 1840s and 1950s Stephen Foster turned away from the "Ethopian Melodies" and wrote some of the most enduring popular songs in American history.The venues that were built in the 1840s through 1860s became one of the nations most thriving vaudeville theater districts.. During the 1880s through the 1920s Pittsburghers flocked to live entertainment.. At it's peak in the 1920s 25,000 to 30,000 people attended theaters daily in downtown Pittsburgh.



Fort Pittsburgh 1776
Pittsburgh 1817

Pittsburgh First Court House
Pennsylvania Canal Line
Charles Rosebaum Piano Forte made in Pittsburgh 1816

Old Economy Village Orchestra Room



Chapman Floating Theater 1831
The Pittsburgh Theater / Old Drury
The Christy Minstels Old Susanna
The Sable Harmonists