Master William Pickels of the Trinity Church, Pittsburg

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Every once in a while old Pa Pitt likes to introduce you to a back alley of Pittsburgh history known to few even of his most informed readers. Here is one of them. Few Pittsburghers are aware that Trinity Church (now Trinity Cathedral) produced a boy soprano whose talent made him a brief national sensation. We hear few boy sopranos these days, but in 1915 Master William Pickels made a few records for Victor, the most prestigious recording company, that show off his technical ability. A short notice in Pacific Coast Musical Review:

The first adequate records of a boy soprano are contributed by Master William Pickels, of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, and two well known and popular airs are used for his Victor debut—Arditi’s “Love in Springtime” and “The Musetta Waltz” from Boheme. This young soprano is a most unusual singer. His voice lends itself admirably to reproduction, and the purity and freshness of his voice and its remarkable flexibility mark him as one of the best boy sopranos ever heard in America.

This record has been given the usual audio restoration for our sister site The Lateral Cut, which brings out a more natural bass and reduces the surface noise.

The Pittsburgh Directory for 1815

Suppose you suddenly dropped through a hole in time and found yourself in the Pittsburgh of 1815. How would you find your way? What was the population? What were the street names then? Where would you find a watch, or a suit of clothes, or wholesale German imports? Was there a library? How would you post a letter?

In case that happens remember this name: James M. Riddle, on the south side of 3d, between Market and Wood streets, and nearly opposite the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank. Mr. Riddle has published a complete directory of the booming Borough of Pittsburgh, and no visitor from the future should be without it.

You will notice that there are no addresses. Though it had already grown to be one of the ten largest cities in the country, Pittsburgh had not yet numbered its houses and buildings. Instead, an address would be given as “S side of Virgin alley between Wood and Smithfield,” and if you wanted anything more specific, you would probably have to ask someone on the street.

Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Classical Master

A century ago, if you had asked anyone around here who were Pittsburgh’s most famous composers, two names would have come up: Stephen Foster and Ethelbert Nevin. (Today you might hear Billy Strayhorn or Erroll Garner, which would certainly be good choices.) Foster was known for his popular songs that became the sound of America being America; Nevin was known for evocative salon pieces that were not too difficult for a talented amateur pianist. Nevin was born in Edgeworth, the son of a Pittsburgh newspaper-owner (Robert Peebles Nevin, who founded the Times, later merged with the Gazette) and a well-known pianist (Elizabeth Duncan Oliphant Nevin). He died at the age of 38, at the peak of his fame, in 1901, and for at least two decades afterward his music was everywhere.

After that, he passed out of fashion so completely that few music-lovers today even recognize his name. His problem was that he wrote little suites meant to be evocative of a place or mood—“Water Scenes,” “In Arcady,” “May in Tuscany”—and the dogma of modernism in music insisted that such musical evocations not only should not but could not happen.

But there are hundreds of recordings of his most famous pieces from the early twentieth century. This one, from 1915, is an orchestral arrangement of the Canzone amorosa from Opus 25, A Day in Venice. Audio restoration has brought out a pleasingly rich sound from the Victor house orchestra, conducted by Walter B. Rogers.

This audio file comes from our sister site The Lateral Cut, which is trying to bring life back to old acoustical recordings with fancy (but not too aggressive) electronic sound restoration.

Prince Gallitzin Defends His Faith

Demetrius Gallitzin, the Russian prince who left his princely life to become a Catholic missionary in the back woods of Pennsylvania, heard a sermon by a Protestant minister on “a day appointed by the government for humiliation and prayer, in order to avert from our beloved country the calamity of war.” He didn’t like it.

“The professed subject of his sermon on such a day was, or should have been, to excite his hearers to humility and contrition, and to a perfect union of hearts and exertions, during the impending storm; but he, very likely alarmed at a much greater danger, of which no body else but himself dreamed; alarmed I mean, and trembling for the ark of Israel, likely to be carried off by those Philistines, called Roman Catholics, or alarmed perhaps at the very probable danger of an intended invasion from the Pope, who would, to be sure, avail himself of the confused state of the country to assist his English friends in the conquest of it, that he might by that means extend his jurisdiction; or, in fine, alarmed perhaps lest our treacherous Catholics would take advantage of the times, and by forming a new Gunpowder plot, would blow up the Congress hall, State houses, and all the protestant meeting houses of the United States: Alarmed at least, by something or another, he suddenly forgets his subject, and putting on a grave countenance, enters the most solemn caveat against Popish and Heathen neighbours, cautions his hearers against their superstitions, and gives them plainly enough to understand, that such Popish neighbours are not to be considered their fellow citizens.”

A little book printed in Pittsburgh in 1816 was Gallitzin’s answer. The book is poorly printed—there were much better printers in Pittsburgh by this time (thirty years after the first press appeared in Pittsburgh), but perhaps no good ones willing to print Catholic tracts. But in spite of the worn types and blotchy ink, the Protestant minister doesn’t stand much of a chance against Gallitzin’s logic and wit.

For us two centuries later, though, it’s interesting to see that Gallitzin regards “the infallibility of the Pope” as one of the many “articles falsely attributed to Roman Catholics” that are “industriously propagated to answer certain iniquitous purposes” (p. 7). Well, you can’t always be on the right side of Popish history.

Earl Hines

Pittsburgh is rich in great jazz pianists. Erroll Garner has been getting more attention lately, and Mary Lou Williams has seen a well-deserved revival. But no one seems to be talking about the one Father Pitt considers the greatest of all. So here, to jog some memories, is Earl Hines playing his own song “A Monday Date” in a recording from 1928. The record was much loved, so there’s a little fuzz around the edges. But the sound is otherwise excellent, and the genius of Fatha Hines glitters in every astonishing bar.