Denes Agay, 95; composer-author’s books have sold in millions

Baltimore Sun

Denes Agay, a noted composer, arranger and author whose books on music, including the anthology “Best Loved Songs of the American People,” have sold millions of copies, has died. He was 95.

Agay died of multiple organ failure Jan. 24 at his daughter’s home in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Los Altos, where he had lived since 2004.

A prodigy who began playing the piano at 3, Agay was born and raised in a small village near Budapest, Hungary. He earned a doctorate in piano composition and performance from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest in 1934.

“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,” said his daughter, Susan Agay Rothschild. “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.”


Agay worked in the Hungarian film industry, composing and orchestrating music for movies. With the rise of Nazism, he left his country and arrived in New York City in 1939.

His parents, who were Jewish, died at Auschwitz.

Agay made the round of music publishers in New York’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 Baltimore Sun in a 1994 interview.


Agay said one of his most unusual assignments had involved the 1933 Czech-Austrian film “Ecstasy,” which featured a provocative performance by Hedy Lamarr, its star, in the nude. The movie was initially banned in the United States by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It was finally 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,” Agay said in the interview.

After obtaining U.S. 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 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, 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 have sold millions of copies.

He also wrote “An Anthology of Piano Music,” a four-volume work that covers the Baroque, classical, Romantic and 20th century periods.

Another work is “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,” songwriter Irving Berlin wrote.


Agay and his wife of 52 years, the former Mary Roberts, endowed the Denes and Mary Agay Piano and Composition Scholarship Fund at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She died in 1999.

In addition to his daughter, Agay is survived by three grandsons.