From last week’s Piano Tuner to this week’s Piano Player… which works fine as a segue, but is probably a huge insult to today’s subject, Irwin E. Hassell (1882-1966), one of two legitimate concert pianists in my dad’s family tree.
Irwin’s father, John Joseph (“J. J.”) Hassell, was a nephew of my 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Hassell Wood. Interestingly, J. J.’s mother was the Hassell – Sarah’s sister, Jane Hassell Isaacs. At some point, David Isaacs became concerned that (a) his Norwegian surname might be perceived by some as Jewish, and (b) that that was a bad thing in Brooklyn in the mid-19th Century. So he and Jane, and all their children (even the adults) legally changed their names to Hassell.
J. J. Hassell married Kate Lane in Brooklyn, December 1875. Irwin and his sisters, Florence and Mabel, were born between 1877 and 1882 in Chico, California, of all places. The children did the bulk of their growing up in the area around San Jose. All of them musically gifted, the three children attended the King Conservatory in Mountain View. After Irwin’s graduation in 1898, Kate and the kids left for several years of advanced musical study in Europe, returning to Brooklyn around 1905; J. J. remained in the West, living in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’m not sure whether the couple ever divorced; J. J. remarried after Kate’s death in 1912.
Before the family left for Berlin, 16 year-old Irwin had his solo recital debut in San Francisco. While in Berlin, he studied with serious-big-deal Professors Franz Xaver Scharwenka and Karl Heinrich Barth, and celebrated his European recital debut in 1904, an event that merited a mention in the New York Times. He also won a Gold Medal in a competition during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the 1903 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Irwin was among the organizers/incorporators of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music around 1907, but ultimately took his teaching career in-house, running the Hassell Conservatory of Music out of the family home on Marcy Avenue. Florence and Irwin taught piano, and the entire faculty numbered about thirty.
I believe none of the three siblings ever married. Irwin died at age 84, May 1966, in Flushing, Queens.
My favorite tidbits about Irwin are:
- A web search on his name turns up mostly old radio programming schedules from local newspapers – classical music concerts originating in the New York area but heard all over the country all through the 1920s and 1930s.
- He had some kind of connection with a bunch of the legendary artists of the day. Listed as “honorary members” of the Hassell Conservatory’s General Musical Committee were Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Pablo Casals, Victor Herbert, Percy Grainger, and John Philip Sousa.
- He was interested in phrenology, defined in Wikipedia as “a pseudoscience primarily focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules.” He regularly entertained at society meetings, and was even profiled in the July 1905 issue of The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health (which also included the portrait displayed above):
He possesses an excellent brow. In fact, his head indicates that he will have a successful musical career if he follows music as a profession… He has the full-sized head of a man many years his senior, it being twenty-two and a half inches in circum.; by fifteen in height and fourteen and a half in length. The width of his head with calipers is five and five-eighths by seven and a half in length… with his superior height of head he gives a moral and elevated tone to his work.