German-born American composer Andre Previn (born 1929) has received acclaim in every musical venue explored during his exceptional career, and has refused to be typecast along the way.
When Andre Previn began his professional musical career, few could have imagined, much less predicted, the circuitous route and dimension his journey would take. Just when one path seemed certain, when he received acclaim in one discipline and success was assured, the determined artist changed course. Endowed with a magnitude of talents, Andre Previn is a richly decorated and world-renowned musician: a highly sought conductor of the world's most prestigious orchestras, an award-winning composer for all media-orchestra, chamber ensemble, stage, and film productions; classical and jazz pianist; recording artist; as well as author and educator.
Born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin, Germany, on April 6, 1929, Previn was the youngest child of a prosperous Jewish family. His father, Jacob, was a respected attorney, as well as an accomplished amateur pianist. Music was an important part of family life, and young Andre, wanting to participate, asked for lessons. After testing revealed that he had perfect pitch, he was enrolled in the Berlin Conservatory of Music at the age of six. As the threat of World War II loomed, life under Nazi rule became increasingly difficult, and in 1938 the family fled to Paris. He studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music until they immigrated to the United States.
Life in Los Angeles, California, was different from life in Berlin and Paris in almost every way possible-from the climate and architecture to the language spoken and career opportunities available. Upon arrival to the U.S., none of the family spoke English, including Previn's father, which made practicing law impossible. To make ends meet, he gave music lessons at home-yet nothing stood in the way of young Previn's musical education. He studied piano, theory, and composition from the best instructors available, Joseph Achron and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Previn became an American citizen at the age of 14, about the same time he became captivated by the most American of all musical formats-jazz. The great African-American jazz pianist, Art Tatum, was his inspiration. Previn began splitting time between his classical studies and jazz, and word of his talent spread. Eager to supplement the family's income, Previn quickly followed up when he heard that MGM needed someone to do a jazz arrangement. That led to writing more arrangements, at first sporadically and then more regularly, several times a week after school. Throughout high school, he managed to make time to continue his serious musical studies, while exploring and developing as a jazz pianist, and working part-time. Seduced by Hollywood's glamour, he signed a contract with MGM when he turned 18. He also made his first recording on the Sunset label while still in his teens.
Previn worked his way up Hollywood's music world, gradually moving from playing rehearsals and writing arrangements to composing original movie scores-all while making a name for himself as a jazz pianist. By 1950, his recordings on the RCA label were hits. Even though writers and musicians were at the bottom of the studio hierarchy, being under contract to the world's biggest studio had its perks and he loved being part of it.
During this time, the Korean War was creating uncertainty for men his age, so Previn joined the national guard as a self-protective measure. After basic training, he was assigned to the Sixth Army Band unit in San Francisco where he was able to study conducting with Pierre Monteux, as well as pursue his passion for jazz with a new friend, drummer Shelly Manne. After the service, he returned to Los Angeles and continued an exhaustive exploration of music, including film composing, arranging, and conducting at MGM, as well as chamber music and jazz. During this time, he married and divorced his first wife, and in 1959, married his second wife, Dory Langdon, a lyricist with whom he collaborated on numerous projects.
Previn's career flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s with musical hits that he adapted from the theatrical stage for films, and original scores he composed and conducted for other musicals and dramas. He became musical director at MGM, was nominated for 16 Academy Awards, and won four. There were performances with his own jazz combo and the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars. He collaborated with top jazz musicians, such as Benny Goodman, Herb Ellis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Shelly Manne with whom he recorded a jazz version of My Fair Lady. In addition to becoming a best seller, the album triggered the popularity of jazz based on Broadway musicals.
Another part of his musicality was calling, however. According to his own account in No Minor Chords, My Days in Hollywood, he longed to be part of the inner circle of what he regarded as the legitimate world of classical music. Hollywood was not the place to write and perform serious music. He wrote in his autobiography, "The truth is I was, in the sixties, somewhat of a misfit in Hollywood, or at least that's how I increasingly came to view myself." He had gotten a valuable practical education, but now he wanted more. Although he performed as a concert pianist, composed chamber music, and began devoting more time to conducting, his focus was divided. In 1965, he began recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, and from 1967 to 1970, he was conductor-in-chief of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1969, while still married to Langdon, Previn began to be seen with actress Mia Farrow, ex-wife of popular crooner Frank Sinatra. She gave birth to their twin sons, Matthew and Sascha in early 1970. The ensuing scandal resulted in Previn leaving the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Langdon and Previn divorced and he married Farrow shortly thereafter. They had another child, Fletcher, and adopted three other children, Daisy, Lark Song and Soon Yi. Due to career conflicts, they divorced in the late 1970s.
Accession to Maestro
Life changed gradually until he accepted the appointment of principal conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1969. In London he became a popular personality, appearing frequently on television to talk about music. He also toured throughout Europe and the United States with the London Symphony, and became especially well-known for his interpretations of British and Russian symphonic repertoire.
Throughout his active conducting career-with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1976-1984), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1985-1989), and the Royal Philharmonic (Music Director: 1985-1988; Principal Conductor: 1988-1991), and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony (since 1993)-he has continued to compose. Compositions included: a Symphony for Strings; "Four Outings, " for brass quintet; a piano concerto, commissioned by Vladimir Ashkenzy; a cello sonata, written for Yo-Yo Ma; a song cycle, written for Dame Janet Baker; a music drama, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, written in collaboration with playwright Tom Stoppard; a set of orchestral song settings, "Honey and Rue, " for Kathleen Battle, commissioned by Carnegie Hall as part of its centennial celebration in 1992; and an opera based on Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire, commission by the San Francisco Opera in 1998.
His many other pursuits include regular piano performances; playing and recording chamber music, especially at festivals such as Caramoor (New York), the South Bank Festival (London), and the La Jolla (California) Chamber Music Festival; and writing and teaching. In addition to many jazz and chamber music recordings, he has recorded complete cycles of Vaughan-Williams, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, and is known for late Romantic and early twentieth century music. Not ashamed of his past in popular music, he also composed scores for the musicals Coco and The Good Companions.
In 1982, he married Heather Hales and they have one child. In the early 1990s, Previn returned to one of his first loves-jazz. He resumed recording, and formed the Andre Previn Jazz Trio, which toured Japan, North America, and Europe in 1992 and 1993.
Further Reading on Andre Previn
Previn, Andre, with Antony Hopkins, Music Face to Face, Hamilton, 1971.
Previn, No Minor Chords, My Days in Hollywood, Doubleday, 1991.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Grove, 1994.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music, Grove, 1992.
Boston Globe, February 14, 1997; July 28, 1997.
G. Schirmer Publicity Releases, March 1998.
New York, June 10, 1996.