Denes Agay

[ Age 95 ] Composer and anthologist wrote music for movies and was an arranger for an American radio show

January 29, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Denes Agay, a noted composer and arranger, and author of the anthology Best Loved Songs of the American People, died of multiple organ failure Wednesday at his daughter's home in Los Altos, Calif., where he had lived since 2004.

The former resident of the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville was 95.

Dr. Agay was born and raised in a small village near Budapest, Hungary, and earned a doctorate in piano composition and performance from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest in 1934.

A child prodigy, Dr. Agay began playing the piano when he was 3 years old.

"He was entirely self-taught and began composing not long afterward," said his daughter, Susan Agay Rothschild.

"He attended law school at the University of Budapest concurrently with his music studies, as his pragmatic businessman father was not certain anyone could make a living from a career in music," she said. "When he conducted the Budapest Philharmonic in a performance of a symphony which he had composed, his father told him it would be all right not to finish his last year of law school."

He worked in the Hungarian film industry, composing and orchestrating music for movies. With the rise of Nazism, Dr. Agay left his native country and arrived in New York City in 1939 with $13 in his pocket.

"That's all the fascist-dominated Hungarian government would allow him to take out of the country," Mrs. Rothschild said. "He was alone and had to make his way without the help of anyone."

His parents, who were Jewish, perished at Auschwitz.

Dr. Agay made the round of music publishers in New York City's Brill Building and was asked whether he could write popular songs.

"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," he told The Sun in a 1994 interview after moving to the Charlestown community.

Dr Agay said one of his most unusual assignments involved the 1933 Czech-Austrian film Ecstasy, which featured a provocative performance by Hedy Lamarr, its star, in the nude. The film was banned in the United States by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which enforced the motion picture production code. It was eventually released in the early 1940s.

"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," Dr. Agay said in the interview.

Other assignments he took in those early days in New York included writing an arrangement for a cowboy song called "My Little 'Dobie Shack Out in the West."

"I had not the slightest idea what a 'dobie shack meant, my little English-Hungarian dictionary said nothing about adobe," he told the Peabody News in a 1995 interview published by the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

After obtaining American citizenship, he enlisted in the Army in 1942 and was assigned to a military hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "I was in charge of entertainment and had a piano rolling through the wards entertaining my buddies, the patients," said Dr. Agay, who attained the rank of sergeant.

After the war, he embarked on a career in teaching, composing and publishing. He was conductor and arranger for the NBC radio show Guest Star, which featured such movie and musical stars as Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and Perry Como.

The author of 96 books, Dr. Agay is best-known for his teaching collections, anthologies, and texts for piano studies, most notably the Joy Of series and Easy Classics to Moderns series, which he began publishing in 1955 and which has since sold millions of copies.

Other works include An Anthology of Piano Music, a four-volume work that covers the baroque, classical, Romantic and 20th-century periods; and Best Loved Songs of the American People, first published in 1975.

The book includes arrangements of Colonial and revolutionary ballads, spirituals, burlesque and vaudeville tunes, jazz and blues. "This is one of the best collections I've ever seen, and I'm proud to be included," composer Irving Berlin wrote.

"He was a charming gentleman and a very scholarly person. He had a long and distinguished career and a long-term relationship with our company," said Barrie Edwards, president of Music Sales Corp. in New York.

Dr. Agay and his wife of 52 years, the former Mary Roberts, who died in 1999, moved to the retirement community in 1993 to be near family.

"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 to going to concerts in Baltimore and Washington as I was in New York," Dr Agay said in the Sun interview.

In 1995, he and his wife endowed the Denes and Mary Agay Piano and Composition Scholarship Fund at the Peabody Conservatory.

A memorial service was held yesterday in Los Altos.

Surviving, in addition to his daughter, are three grandsons.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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