Last updateMon, 16 Oct 2017 11am


Denes Agay, legendary musician who raised bar for piano instruction

Denes Agay, a renowned composer and author of hundreds of classical piano materials that raised the standard of instruction around the world, died Jan. 24 at his Los Altos home. Mr. Agay was 95.

The Hungarian-born Agay studied piano and composition at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest before earning his doctorate at the University of Budapest. His composition "Prelude to a Comedy" attracted the attention of Erno Dohnanyi, principal conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, who selected the work for one of the orchestra's radio concerts.

Emigrating to the United States prior to the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Agay found steady work through his wide-ranging musical talents, which included arranging for music publishers, orchestrating ballets, conducting radio shows, teaching and composing popular music.

Arriving in New York City in January 1939 with $13 to his name, Mr. Agay went to every major music publisher in the city. His daughter, Susan Agay Rothschild, said Mr. Agay "presented his impeccable classical credentials and was told that that was nice, but could he write a popular song? So he did."

Open to all types of music, Mr. Agay could shift gears, or notes, from piano sonatas to a country-western number depending on the demand, as he did when he wrote, "My Little Dobie Shack Out West." "Down the Gypsy Trail" is one of his movie compositions. Actress Hedy Lamarr danced to the song in the 1933 Czech movie "Ecstasy."

Later, Mr. Agay conducted an NBC radio show called "Guest Star," which featured major movie and music stars.

After World War II, during which he served in the U.S. Army, Mr. Agay turned to work on his now internationally famous teaching collections, anthologies and texts for piano studies.

Among the most noteworthy are the "Classics to Moderns" series, "An Anthology of Piano Music" and his "Joy" series, which ranged from "The Joy of Baroque" to "The Joy of Jazz."

His book "Best Loved Songs of the American People," published in 1975, drew this response from legendary American composer Irving Berlin: "The histories in the Notes on the Songs section are fascinating. Above all this is one of the best collections I have ever seen and I'm proud to be included."

One music critic noted, "The name of Denes Agay is synonymous with quality."

"He's done so much for piano teachers everywhere," said Los Altos resident and composer Sondra Clark, in an August 2006 Town Crier article about Mr. Agay. "He's also quite a character, a delightful raconteur."

Mr. Agay is survived by his daughter, Susan Agay Rothschild, and son-in-law, Charlie Rothschild, of Los Altos; grandsons Denes Agay Rothschild of Washington, D.C., David Charles Rothschild of Paris, France, and James Michael Rothschild of Eugene, Ore.; daughter-in-law Ronnie Shore Rothschild; and niece Vera Nagy of Budapest, Hungary.

A memorial service was held Sunday at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

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