André George Previn, KBE (April 6, 1929 – February 28, 2019) was born Andreas Ludwig Priwin and was an American musician, born in Germany.
André Previn’s career in Hollywood, was as an arranger and composer, in jazz he was a pianist-interpreter and arranger of songs from the “Great American Songbook,” he was also a piano-accompanist to singers of jazz standards, a trio pianist, and a classical music pianist, conductor and as composer.
Andreas Ludwig Priwin was born in Berlin into a Jewish family, the last of three children of Charlotte (née Epstein) and Jack Previn (Jakob Priwin), who was a lawyer, judge, and music teacher. Most published reports give his year of birth as 1929, but Previn stated it was actually 1930. All three children received piano lessons but André Previn was the one who enjoyed them from the start and also displayed the most talent. At six, he was enrolled at the Berlin Conservatory. In 1938, Previn’s father was told that his son was no longer welcome at the conservatory, despite André receiving a full scholarship in recognition of his abilities, on the grounds that he was Jewish.
In 1938, the family applied for American visas and during the nine-month wait to obtain them, left Berlin for a more tolerant Paris. André’s father enrolled him into the Paris Conservatory where he learned music theory. Then on October 20, 1938, the family left Paris and sailed to New York City, where they continued on to Los Angeles, arriving on November 26. He learned English, his third language after German and French, through reading comic books and other materials with a dictionary, and from watching films. André Previn eventually became a naturalized US citizen in 1943 and in 1946 graduated from Beverly Hills High School and performed with flutist Richard M. Sherman at the ceremony.
Previn came to prominence by arranging and composing film scores and was involved in the music for over 50 films winning four Academy Awards for his work.
His career began in 1946, when still in high school, as a composer, conductor, and arranger at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, after their music department heard his work for a local radio program and hired him. Previn once said that MGM were “looking for somebody who was talented, fast and cheap and, because I was a kid, I was all three. So they hired me to do piecework and I evidently did it very well.” His first official credit was for an entry in the Lassie series, The Sun Comes Up (1949), which he later thought was “the most inept score you ever heard” after seeing a television rerun.
Previn was a full time employee at MGM when he was called up for military service in 1950. While stationed with the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio of San Francisco, he took private conducting lessons from Pierre Monteux, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which he valued highly. In 1953, Previn returned to Hollywood and focused his attention on film scores and jazz. He stayed at MGM for 16 years but despite the secure job and being well paid, had grown to feel increasingly confined and wanted to pursue classical music, so, at 32, he resigned from MGM, wanting “to gamble with whatever talent I might have had.”
Previn described himself as a musician who also played jazz, not as a jazz musician. But he proved to be a gifted jazz-piano interpreter and arranger of songs from the “great American songbook,” winning the respect of many prominent dedicated jazz artists. He also worked as piano-accompanist to singers of jazz standards, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day, and recorded prolifically. Like the legendary Oscar Peterson, whom André Previn admired a great deal, and Bill Evans, he often worked as a trio pianist, usually with bass and drums, collaborating with many famous jazz instrumentalists. Previn also memorably filmed TV shows with Petersen (1974) and Fitzgerald (1979).
Dizzy Gillespie said “André Previn has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get. Yeah. I heard him play and I knew. A lot of guys, they have the technique, the harmonic sense. They’ve got the perfect coordination. And, yeah, all that’s necessary. But you need something more, you know? Even if you only make an oooooooo, like that, you got to have the flow.”
During his career, André Previn was music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as being the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in London.
In 1967, he succeeded Sir John Barbirolli as the music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, then in 1968, he was made principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), which he did until 1979. During his LSO tenure, he and the LSO appeared on the BBC Television programme André Previn’s Music Night. Previn described the Indian classical album he recorded with Sitar great Ravi Shankar in 1971, the Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra, as “absolute, total, utter shit”. However, during his period with the LSO Previn gained the reputation of being “a first-rate conductor of second-rate music.”
From 1975 to 1985, he was also the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) and had another television series with the PSO entitled Previn and the Pittsburgh. He was then principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in London, from 1985 to 1991.
In 1985, he also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although Previn’s time with the orchestra was seen as satisfactory from a professional perspective, other conductors, including Kurt Sanderling, Simon Rattle, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, did a better job at selling out concerts.
Previn was music director of the Oslo Philharmonic from 2002 to 2006, and in 2009 he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra.
As a composer André Previn left two concert overtures, several tone poems, 14 concertos, a symphony for strings, incidental music to a British play; a rich trove of chamber music (six violin sonatas, other scores for violin and piano; sonatas for bassoon, cello, clarinet, flute and oboe, each with piano; a waltz for two oboes and piano, three other trios, a string quartet with soprano, a clarinet quintet, a quintet for horn and strings, a nonet, a so-called Octet for Eleven, and three works for brass ensemble); several works for solo piano; dozens of songs (in English and German); a monodrama for soprano, string quartet and piano (Penelope, completed just before he died); a musical each for New York and London (Coco and The Good Companions); and two successful operas.
British TV audiences witnessed his comic acting skills on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1971 when he was introduced as “Mr. Andrew Preview” (or “Privet”). This involved his conducting a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Eric Morecambe as the inept soloist, having been tricked into it by being told that Yehudi Menuhin would be his solo violinist. Playing the comedy straight, the annoyed Mr. Preview then remarks: “I’ll go fetch my baton. It’s in Chicago.” This comic ad-lib made Morecambe immediately realise the sketch would be a success. Later in the sketch Mr. Preview accuses Morecambe of playing “all the wrong notes”; Morecambe grits his teeth, grabs Mr. Preview by the lapels, and retorts that he has been playing “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.
At a concert he conducted with the Grieg Concerto, included in the program in Britain, Previn had to pause the playing to allow the audience time to stop giggling as they remembered the sketch. Previn later said that people in Britain still recall the sketch years later: “Taxi drivers still call me Mr Preview”.
André Previn was married five times. His first marriage, in 1952, was to jazz singer Betty Bennett, with whom he had two daughters. That marriage ended in divorce in 1957. In 1959, he married Dory Langan, a singer-songwriter and lyricist with whom Previn collaborated on several Academy Award-nominated film scores during their marriage. Previn divorced her in 1969 during her hospitalization for a mental breakdown, and after Previn was caught having an affair with 23-year-old Mia Farrow.
Previn’s third marriage, in 1970, was to Mia Farrow. Before their divorce in 1979, they had three biological children together and adopted two Vietnamese infants and a Korean child.
Previn’s longest marriage was his fourth to Heather Sneddon, who he married in January 1982 and divorced after 17 years.
His fifth marriage, in 2002, was to the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter whom he divorced in August 2006.
André Previn was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won in 1958, 1959, 1963 and 1964. He is one of the only composers to have won back-to-back Oscars, one of only two to have done so on two occasions, and the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations in one year (1961).
Previn was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996. (Not being a citizen of a Commonwealth realm, he was permitted to use the post-nominal letters KBE but was not called “Sir André”.) In 2008 he won Gramophone magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in classical, film, and jazz music.
André Previn died on February 28, 2019, at home in Manhattan at the age of 89. No cause was released.
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