In Memoriam: André Previn, Master Arranger, 1929 - 2019

by Philip Berk March 2, 2019
Composer, conductor and arranger Andre Previn

stephen lovekin/getty images

There is a good reason why André Previn never won a Golden Globe even though he scored many of our winners. Unlike the Academy, the HFPA never had a separate category for adapting scores. But we did recognize his contribution by honoring three of the films he scored: Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, and Gigi were all Golden Globe Best Picture Musical/Comedy winners.

If anyone who worked in Hollywood could be called a renaissance man, it would be Previn, who died at his home in Manhattan at 89, on February 28th. Besides being a Hollywood musical legend, he was also a renowned conductor and a superb raconteur; when it came to discussing music he was equal to Leonard Bernstein. His PBS programs Previn and The Pittsburgh were relished by anyone who loved classical music and erudite analysis.

But there was so much more to the man’s versatility. He was also a Broadway show composer, most memorably composing the score for Coco in spite of having to cope with Katharine Hepburn, who was barely able to sing his melodic songs. He also composed the score for It's Always Fair Weather filling in for Leonard Bernstein in the Gene Kelly sequel of sorts to On the Town.

And he found time to marry five times - among his famous wives, singer Dory Previn, actress Mia Farrow. and concert violinist Anna-Sophie Mutter. As conductor of the London Symphony orchestra, he championed the work of British composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Previn was born Andreas Ludwig Privin in Nazi Germany. The family fled Europe arriving in Los Angeles when André was ten years old. He was 16 when he graduated from Beverly Hills High School, and a few months older when he was signed by MGM to score movies.

He worked on dozens of MGM films, both dramas and musicals, but was never allowed to score films, working only as an arranger and conductor. No wonder after he left Hollywood, he was quoted as saying, “I made a lot of money but then I said to myself, “Listen you’ve had it. Get out of here.”

It would prove the wisest move he ever made. Having studied with some of the great classical teachers, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch, he quickly found his calling as a symphony conductor, earning his stripes with the Pittsburg and Dallas Symphony orchestras before becoming a permanent conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic and later the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra.

His three-year tenure was marred by disputes with the orchestra’s general manager Ernest Fleischman, which caused upheaval. In his later years, he composed numerous orchestral works including a violin concerto for his wife, but he was not a music snob; in fact, he carved an important career as a jazz pianist and made popular recordings with Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Mahalia Jackson.

In 2014 he composed an opera based on Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire with Renee Fleming singing the role of Blanche  DuBois.

Although Previn never scored movies the way John Williams or Max Steiner did, his fame was undiminished. Mistakenly identified as a film composer he was actually an arranger.

And in that capacity, he had no peer.

May he rest in peace.