Inquiring Minds: A Voyage of Musical Rediscovery

Pianist Alex Hassan’s passion is music, but not just any music – he lives to recreate the Tin Pan Alley melodies of the 1920 and 1930s.  The classically trained musician, who says he is a pupil of pupil of a pupil of Franz Lizst, has, in his own words, “tunnel vision” for the popular musical styles and arrangements of the bygone era. But his interests lie in the discovery of what he calls “musica obscurae,” works from the time that often went unpublished. He performs them as part of the trio, Three For a Song, featuring soprano Karin Paludan and tenor Doug Bowles. In addition, Hassan is an avid collector of these works, having currently amassed some 45,000 pieces of sheet music.

“The significance of these ‘music obscurae’ allow me to quote Doug Bowles: ‘Your favorite songs were once songs you didn’t know,’” he said.

Hassan has been a fan and avid researcher of the Library of Congress collections for many years. He first began researching in the early 1970s.

“The Performing Arts Reading Room has been a second home for decades,” he said. “Happily, the greatest, most accessible library in the world is minutes away.” Hassan lives in Falls Church, Va.

Hassan recalls his experiences searching the Library’s stacks some 30 years ago. “I regularly had stack passes and can honestly state that all important piano solo collections were meticulously perused.” (The Library’s stacks have always been closed to the public, but exceptions were once made for scholars and others who verified a need to browse in designated areas.)

Working with reference librarians, Hassan discovered the Library’s “It’s Showtime” collection, which “proved a goldmine” for his performances.

“Many of the stunning finds have entered both my repertoire and those of singing friends Kari Paludan and Doug Bowles in our performances,” he said. “An early program of ours in the Coolidge Auditorium was an adjunct to [retired Music Division senior cataloging specialist] Sharon McKinley’s luncheon talk on the database.”

Most recently, Hassan has been working with the papers of American composer and film producer Arthur Schwartz and materials from the Warner-Chappell archives, a collection of manuscripts from Warner Bros. music publishing company. According to him, he’s made many discoveries, including an unpublished work by Herman Hupfeld, who wrote “As Time Goes By” in 1931 (not written for “Casablanca,” Hassan says). The score was for a show, “One More Night,” staring noted chanteuse of the time Irene Bordoni, which closed before reaching Broadway.

“The title song has one of those soaring romantic melodies that stays in the memory,” he said.

Speaking of melody, that’s why Hassan has developed such in interest in these sounds of the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, melody was in the forefront of the songs, he said. He also feels that the music of that time lends itself to his piano-playing style.

“There was such a proliferation of melody in the 1920s and 1930s that a ton of stuff of equal merit never had a chance,” he explained. “The explorer in me has always prevailed, and I’ve been a torch-bearer for the songs that didn’t make it.

“The standards will always be there: ‘Star Dust,’ ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, ‘Summertime,’ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’” he continued. “We’re the drum majors for the songs that, for a variety of reasons, didn’t have the snowball’s chance.”

The Library’s efforts to preserve such historical musical collections are, to him, a blessing.

“There’s no other library in the world with the quality and quantity and, importantly, accessibility of collections,” Hassan concluded. “May I continue to beg the wonderful staff’s forgiveness for my continuing gluttony.”

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