On his 80th birthday, we celebrate the often overlooked career of one of my favorite film composers—André Previn. Previn has found success in nearly every facet of music, including film, jazz, and the concert hall. He has won four Academy Awards and ten Grammy Awards in the classical, jazz, pop, and soundtrack fields.
Born on April 6, 1929, in Berlin, Previn began his musical studies at the Berlin Conservatory until his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. He continued his musical studies in Los Angeles with Joseph Achron and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and became an American citizen in 1943. As cousin to Oscar-winner Charles Previn (One Hundred Men and a Girl), it seems only natural that André would end up working in Hollywood as well.
While he was still in high school, M-G-M hired Previn to arrange Holiday in Mexico, starring José Iturbi. In 1948, at just nineteen, the studio hired him permanently as a conductor and composer, where he became part of the famous “Arthur Freed unit.”
Previn composed his first original film score for a dog. The Sun Comes Up, the fifth in the Lassie films, also starred Jeanette MacDonald (in her final film role) and Claude Jarman, Jr. While the film is nothing more than ridiculous backwoods hokum, Previn’s score show remarkable talent in the young 19-year-old composer. His theme for Lassie remains arguably the finest of the series. (Forgive the whining of the poor dog and the minimal sound effects and dialogue.)[audio:suncomesup.mp3]
Perhaps because of this inauspicious beginning, Previn has not received nearly enough credit for his original film music. Though he called on his jazz background for films such as The Subterraneans and Two for the Seesaw, his superb sense of drama can be heard in such diverse films as Bad Day At Black Rock, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Elmer Gantry (his only Oscar nomination for an original score), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Previn’s biggest acclaim in Hollywood came from a slew of movie musicals. Three Little Words, It’s Always Fair Weather and Kismet, Bells Are Ringing, Silk Stockings, and Paint Your Wagon all bear the stamp of Previn’s impeccable musical talents. His four Oscars include Gigi, My Fair Lady, and Irma La Douce. He won another his third Oscar for George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, shared with choral director Ken Darby. However, the Gershwin estate was inexplicably displeased with Previn’s distinguished arrangements, and the film has never been shown on TV or released on video.
Along with lyricist Dory Langdon (the second of five Mrs. Previns), André contributed some memorable movie songs, including “Second Chance” from Two for the Seesaw, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” from Inside Daisy Clover, and perhaps his most famous, “Theme from Valley of the Dolls.”
In 1970, Previn made a brief foray into the world of musical theatre. Based on the life of Coco Chanel, with lyrics by Gigi and My Fair Lady scribe Alan Jay Lerner, Coco became infamous in the annals of Broadway because of its non-singing star, Katharine Hepburn. While Coco is a camp classic, Previn’s score is particularly lovely.
Previn had finally had enough of Hollywood and now focused on his classical career. He has composed symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and many solo piano and vocal compositions. In 1998, Previn made his first foray into opera with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, with a libretto by Philip Littell, written for Renée Fleming. His opera of based on David Lean’s Brief Encounter opens in at the Houston Grand Opera in May 2009. In addition, he has held chief artistic posts with the Houston Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, and the Oslo Philharmonic.
In 1991, Previn published his autobiography, No Minor Chords: My Days In Hollywood. To this day, he refuses to discuss his film music in interviews. Though he may not be active in film circles anymore, his superb musicianship lives on in his excellent scores for fifty-plus films, many of which have been released on the Film Score Monthly label.
Happy birthday, Maestro! And thanks for the many aural memories.