Henry Kleber, an accomplished and versatile musician, was a major influence in the development of the musical culture of Pittsburgh. He exerted his influence as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.
“He died leaving a name that has become a household word in Western Pennsylvania as associated with one of the most prosperous and progressive music firms in the country, and he was a man to be sorely missed not only in the circles of his relatives and descendants, but by the thousands that have known him in a purely business way. His marked personality, his forceful character, strong likes and dislikes; intense love of music, and a signal ability as a singer, musician, composer and business man, were traits that united to render him a conspicuous member of musical, social and business circles for a period extending over more than three generations.” - Obituary: The Late Henry Kleber. From The Pittsburg Bulletin, 27 February 1897
Henry Kleber, born in 1816, emigrated at age 16 from the German city of Darmstadt with his family in 1832. Henry’s first job in Pittsburgh was teaching music at an exclusive girl’s academy. A gifted tenor he performed concerts beginning in 1836. Angered in 1850 by an unfavorable review from music critic Henry Shaad, he chased the music critic into a store beating him with a cowhide whip. He was fined $100 and court costs. Henry published the first of his hundreds of light dance compositions in 1839. At St. Paul's Cathedral and the Third Presbyterian Church Henry served as organist and choir director. He organized the first band west of the Alleghenies called the Citizen’s Brass Band. He is also credited with organizing the Troubadours club in 1874 and the Mozart Club in 1878. Kleber was also a member of the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Society which was a forerunner of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Kleber also produced concerts with local and national artists. His concert with singer Jenny Lind cause a near riot in Pittsburgh. Lind-o-mania swept Pittsburgh in the Spring of 1851, when Henry Kleber booked the Swedish Nightengale for two nights of concerts on April 25& 26, 1851 at Pittsburgh’s new Masonic Hall. About 1,500 tickets were, through an auction, at average prices of $7.50 -- about $194 in today's money. Thousands of people flocked into Pittsburgh from the surrounding towns in hopes of getting a seat at the concert. On the evening of the 25th an immense crowd surrounded the Masonic Hall completely unnerving Jenny Lind. The Morning Post estimated the crowd outside the theater to at about 7,000 to 8,000 people. Despite the intense noise from the crowd, Lind gave a great performance. The Morning Post paper wrote “Her voice is sweet as the warbling of birds”. But, the second show was never held. In fear of the crazed Pittsburgh mob, Jenny Lind fled Pittsburgh in the middle of the night.
Kleber opened one of Pittsburgh’s first music stores in 1846 called “Sign of the Golden Harp” at 301 Third Street. His store was the first to import pianos over the Allegheny Mountains on the new canal. He sold pianos, melodeons, violins, brass horns, sheet music, flutes, accordions, and drums. Upright Chickering pianos sold for $250 to $700 and Steinway grand piano sold for $1000. The store prospered and moved to bigger quarters in 1850 and again in 1862 to Wood Street.
Kleber gave music lessons at his store. He conducted informal musicales with his pupils at the homes of wealthy Pittsburghers. One of his pupils was Stephen Foster. Kleber sold a piano that he imported from Germany to a musician friend of Stephen Foster, Mary Woods. It was on the Woods piano that Foster wrote several of his early compositions. Kleber was a close friend of Foster collaborating with him on several compositions. Kleber sang a moving aria from "Joseph in Egypt" at Stephen Foster’s funeral at the Trinity Church in 1864. Actor Felix Bressart played the part of Henry Kleber in the 1939 movie biography of Stephen Foster entitled “Swanee River”
Henry Kleber died in 1897 having greatly contributed to the musical life of Pittsburgh.