From classical to cowboy, Agay can't stop the music

September 24, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Denes Agay has dealt with everything from classical music to cowboy songs during more than a half-century as a composer, arranger, piano teacher and writer.

That versatility will be sampled in a program of his music planned for 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. The assembled vocal and instrumental forces will tackle compositions ranging from the classical mainstream to more folkloric pieces, such as "The Yankee Peddler," a song about a traveling salesman in Colonial days.

Mr. Agay, 83, has himself done some traveling through life. The Hungarian-born musician spent most of his career in New York City before moving with his wife, Mary, to this Catonsville retirement community last year. He has gained a reputation for his own music, but is best known for his pedagogical books.

"I've done literally hundreds of textbook and anthologies for piano study," he says. These piano teaching materials include the anthology "Easy Classics to Moderns." Also found on many bookshelves is his 1975 anthology, "Best Loved Song of the American People," featuring a foreword by Irving Berlin.

Mr. Agay's piano education began early in Hungary, although his father only agreed to pay for his musical studies at the Budapest Conservatory -- on the condition that he also study law at the University of Budapest.

Once his family heard his graduation concert, however, they acknowledged he could succeed as a musician and needn't practice law. Having such major composers as Erno Dohnanyi, Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok associated with the conservatory at that time certainly gave him an inspirational boost.

After graduation, Mr. Agay found a job composing and orchestrating music for Hungarian films. He served in that country's army until his discharge in 1938, then stayed a step ahead of Hitler by moving to the United States in 1939. He quickly found that the commercial music business in New York had little use for a classically trained Hungarian musician.

"When I first arrived here 55 years ago, they told me not to write piano sonatas and string quartets, but to write pop songs. . . . In my shady past, I did write some popular songs, too, by necessity."

These assignments included writing an arrangement of a cowboy song entitled "My Little 'Dobie Shack Out in the West." Its meaning baffled the recent arrival. His English/Hungarian dictionary gave no clue as to what adobe was.

He caught on to American pop tastes soon enough, though, and even came up with a version of the nursery rhyme "How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?" He also played piano for bands, did orchestrations for a ballet company, and established the private studio where he taught piano and composition.

Perhaps his most unusual job involved the 1933 Czech film "Ecstasy," whose star, Hedy Lamarr, cavorted so provocatively that the movie was initially banned in America. Mr. Agay relates this tale of its belated American release in the early '40s: "I wrote a song called 'Down the Gypsy Trail' for the American version, because the importer of the film felt there needed to be a popular song in it. You can hear my music while Hedy is running through the woods naked."

Another music-related stint during World War II involved his service in the U.S. Army, when, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., "I was in charge of entertainment and had a piano rolling through the wards entertaining my buddies, the patients."

Besides teaching, composing and publishing in the post-war years, he also had such radio gigs as being conductor and arranger for the NBC radio series "Guest Star," on which the guests included Perry Como, the Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby.

Although that New York activity has given way to a quieter existence in Catonsville, he puts in a good word for the local music scene.

"Coming from New York, I worried that the musical life wouldn't be as intense here as in the Big Apple, but I'm as much engaged going to concerts in Baltimore and Washington as I was in New York."


Where: Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, Charlestown Retirement Community, 715 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville

When: 3 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: Free

Call: (410) 247-3400

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