André Previn

Remembering a Natural Musical Talent

Shortly before his 90th birthday André Previn died in his New York home. An exceptional artist, pianist, composer and conductor who playfully linked the two worlds of popular and classical music.

No other Oscar & Grammy winning conductor and composer from the Hollywood film studios has been equally successful in the strict classical world of the London Symphony Orchestra. He often conducted two orchestras simultaneously on different continents, but no matter which country he was in, he was always very present and often praised as the new guardian of classical music. "Those of you who think that being a conductor is a succession of limousines and mistresses – it isn’t. It's being some place not long enough to have your laundry done or having to work it out" Previn said in the 1998 Tony Palmer documentary The Kindness of Strangers. During his time at the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971 to 1972, Previn's telegenic qualities helped him to enlarge his audience with the television show André Previns Music Night and, more unintentionally, by his comic alter ego Andrew Preview along with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Between 1977 and 1980, he brought unprecedented national attention in the US to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with the television series Previn and the Pittsburgh.

Andreas Ludwig Priwin
was born on April 6, 1929 in Berlin and received his first music lessons from his father. He studied at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, including piano with Rudolf Breithaupt, until the family fled the Nazis to Paris in 1938. There he enrolled at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied among others improvisation with Marcel Dupré. The family immigrated to the United States in 1939 and moved on to Los Angeles. Once there, they took over the current spelling of the family name of an American relative who was at that time music director at Universal in Hollywood. Previn became a US citizen in 1943.

Hollywood - Composer, Pianist, Glamor & Oscars

In 1945, still a teenager, Previn received a contract at the studio MGM Metro Goldwyn Meyer. Through the production processes and the constant exchange with colleagues, he developed his knowledge as a composer, orchestrator, conductor and jazz pianist. He was an excellent score and from-the-sheet-player, what helped him later in his conducting career. In his later work as a composer, he only used music paper and a pen. This way he could realize his own personal sound ideas without external influence.

At the age of 16, his love for jazz and his improvisational extravagance were awakened by Art Tatum's Sweet Lorraine. Soon he gave his first jazz concert at the concert hall of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. It was followed by the first recordings with jazz musicians such as Willie Smith and Red Callender. Previn hosted the BBC show Omnibus with Oscar Peterson and was capable of holding up with Oscar's fastest tempi. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald on the piano. He was one of the jazz musicians in the US - playing with greats like Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday.

He composed music for the Broadway and Films; including the music for Three Little Words, The Catered Affair, the comedy Gigi, and the screwball comedy One, Two, Three. In addition to nine Grammys Previn won four Oscars: three for best film music with his arrangements of Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, Gigi, and the fourth for Irma La Douce, a play by Billiy Wilder, where he composed the film music. He wrote the music of the very successful Broadway musical Coco about the fashion goddess Gabrielle Chanel. Previn conducted major film and musical projects such as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Elephant Man or the science-fiction-movie Rollerball.


Turning to Symphonic Music

As a conductor and composer of orchestral works, he devoted himself more and more to classical music and took over the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1967. Three years later, as successor to Claudio Abbado, he was appointed to the London Symphony Orchestra, probably one of his most important steps on this new path. Other orchestras were to follow: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Oslo Filharmoniske Orkester. In 1997 he composed the opera A Streetcar Named Desire after a play by Tennessee Wiliams, tailor-made for Renée Fleming with: I want Magic. 2007 he wrote the opera Brief Encounter.

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André Previn – notoriously private

The passionate art collector was married five times. He had creative collaborations with four of his wives. The first marriage with jazz singer Betty Bennet entailed a centre of life in San Francisco, where he got to know the local jazz scene. It also enabled him to take conducting lessons with Pierre Monteux, director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Later, he and his wife did some jazz projects on stage and in the recording studio. With his second wife, Dory Langdon, he wrote music for films and for jazz and pop artists, such as Doris Day. Wife number four was the film actress Mia Farrow. Here too, joint works were created. His fifth marriage to star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was also characterised by artistic creations. She was - along with the Boston Symphony Orchestra - his most important interpreter and client. Previn's first violin concerto was premiered by Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2002 and bears her name. Other compositions, joint recordings and concerts followed. Even after the divorce, the two remained close friends and intimate musical companions.


In an interview on his 80th birthday, Previn was asked whether he had any regrets. “Privately, yes”, he said. “I’ve made some very poor choices in my private life. But, as a professional, no, not really” and he added “I don’t tend to take myself all that seriously.”


Honors & Awards

In 1996, Previn received the Order Knight Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II, the Glenn Gould Prize in 2005, and the Great Cross of Merit with the Star of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2011. In 2012, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

André Previn


Photos: A. P. Mutter
Cover photo: Munich Gasteig, André Previn with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra