Previn was born in Berlin to a Jewish family, the second son and last of three children of Charlotte (née Epstein; Frankfurt 1891-1986) and Jack Previn (Jakob Priwin; Graudenz 1885-1963), who was a lawyer, judge, and music teacher born in Graudenz, then in Germany but now in Poland. The oldest son Steve Previn became a director. The year of Previn's birth is uncertain. Whereas most published reports give 1929, Previn himself stated that 1930 was his birth year. All three children received piano lessons and Previn was the one who enjoyed them from the start and displayed the most talent. At six, he 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 had applied for American visas and during the nine-month wait to obtain them, left Berlin for Paris. Previn's father enrolled his son into the Conservatoire de Paris where André learned music theory. On October 20, 1938, the family left Paris and sailed to New York City. Their journey continued to Los Angeles, arriving on November 26. His father's second cousin Charles Previn was music director for Universal Studios. Previn became a naturalized US citizen in 1943. He learned English, his third language after German and French, through comic books and other reading materials with a dictionary, and watching films. In 1946 he graduated from Beverly Hills High School and performed with Richard M. Sherman at the ceremony; Previn played the piano, accompanying Sherman, who played the flute.
In the film studios
Previn in 2012
Previn was involved in creating the music for over 50 films and won four Academy Awards for his work.
Previn's career as a composer, conductor, and arranger at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM) began in 1946, while he was still in high school, after their music department noticed his work for a local radio program and hired him. Previn recalled that MGM was "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 much later he thought was "the most inept score you ever heard" after seeing a television rerun.
While a full-time employee at MGM in 1950, Previn was drafted into the military. Beginning in 1951, while stationed with the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio of San Francisco, Previn took private conducting lessons for two years from Pierre Monteux, then conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, lessons which Previn valued highly. In 1953, Previn returned to Hollywood and focused his attention on film scores and jazz. Previn stayed at MGM for 16 years, but despite the secure job and good pay, he had come to feel increasingly confined, and consequently desired to pursue classical music outside of film scores. He resigned from MGM at 32, wanting "to gamble with whatever talent I might have had".
His break with the film world in the 1960s, however, was not as complete and thorough as he would later claim. During this period, Previn won a 1964 Academy Award for My Fair Lady. His film work continued until 1975's Rollerball. Over his multi-decade film career, Previn was involved in the music of over 50 movies as composer, conductor, and/or performer.
Previn described himself as a musician who played jazz, rather than a jazz musician. Nevertheless, he proved to be a gifted jazz-piano interpreter and arranger of songs from the "Great American Songbook", winning the respect of prominent dedicated jazz artists. He separately worked as piano-accompanist to singers of jazz standards, from Ella Fitzgerald to Doris Day, recording prolifically. And, like Oscar Peterson, whom he admired tremendously, and Bill Evans, he worked often as a trio pianist, usually with bass and drums, collaborating with dozens of famed jazz instrumentalists. Previn also memorably filmed TV shows with Peterson (1974) and Fitzgerald (1979). Jazz critic and historian Ted Gioia wrote in his book about West Coast jazz, the scene to which Previn belonged:
[His] projects varied greatly in terms of quality and jazz content, but at his best Previn could be a persuasive, moving jazz musician. [...] Despite his deep roots in symphonic music, Previn largely steered clear of Third Stream classicism in his jazz work, aiming more at an earthy, hard-swinging piano style at times reminiscent of Horace Silver. Long before his eventual retreat from his jazz work, Previn had become something of a popularizer of jazz rather than a serious practitioner of the music. At his best, however, his music reflected a strong indigenous feel for the jazz idiom.
He 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.
In 1985, he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although Previn's tenure with the orchestra was deemed 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 clashed frequently with Ernest Fleischmann (the LAPO's Executive VP and General Manager), including the dispute when Fleischmann failed to consult Previn before naming Salonen as Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra, complete with a tour of Japan. As a result of Previn's objections, Salonen's title and Japanese tour were withdrawn; however, shortly thereafter, in April 1989, Previn resigned. Four months later, Salonen was named Music Director Designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, officially taking the post of music director in October 1992.
André Previn left two concert overtures, several tone poems, 14 concerti, 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.
In his capacity as conductor, mainly, Previn enjoyed a long relationship with the medium of television. He featured in Meet André Previn (1969) on London Weekend Television, the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1971 and 1972 (BBC), André Previn's Music Night (with the London Symphony Orchestra; three programmes in 1973, others in 1975 and 1976), and television interviews with other musicians. He made appearances on Call My Bluff and participated in documentaries about popular music and jazz during the 1970s and 1980s. In the United Kingdom he worked on TV with the London Symphony Orchestra. In the U.S. the television program Previn and the Pittsburgh (1977) featured him in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
British TV audiences witnessed his comic acting skills when he was introduced as "Mr. Andrew Preview" (or "Privet") on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1971. This involved his conducting a performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto with Eric Morecambe as the inept soloist, having been tricked into doing it by being told that Yehudi Menuhin would be his solo violinist. Playing the comedy straight, the annoyed Previn 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 Previn accuses Morecambe of playing "all the wrong notes"; Morecambe grits his teeth, grabs Previn by the lapels, and retorts that he has been playing "all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order".
Because of other commitments, the only opportunity available for Previn to learn his part in the show was in the back of the taxi from the airport, but the talent he showed for comedy won high praise from his co-performers. He made a second appearance in their eighth series. In the sketch, he is tricked into visiting the pair again, and they suggest that if he works with them again, he could receive a knighthood; he conducts a 1920s-style dance band as the pair sing, and then joins them at the end of the episode in singing Bring Me Sunshine. Previn later appeared in the 1972 special as a bus conductor in a feature called "I worked with Morecambe and Wise and look what happened to me".
Previn himself recalled in 2005 that people in Britain still recall the sketch years later: "Taxi drivers still call me Mr Preview". He later said he was happy that the sketch meant as much to everyone else as it did to him, and that several parts of it were (uncharacteristically for Morecambe and Wise) improvised.
Previn was the subject of a two-hour film by Tony Palmer entitled The Kindness of Strangers - after the closing words of his opera then in production, in 1998 - which followed Previn for a year at engagements around the world, and included interviews with Previn and rehearsals for the opera. The film was issued on DVD in 2009 by Voiceprint Records; an earlier issue had cut 30 minutes from it.
Previn was married five times. His first marriage, in 1952, was to jazz singer Betty Bennett, with whom he had two daughters, Claudia Previn Stasny and Alicia Previn. Previn divorced Bennett in 1957, a few months before she gave birth to Alicia.
In 1959, he married Dory Langan. A singer-songwriter, Dory became widely known as a lyricist with whom Previn collaborated on several Academy Award-nominated film scores during their marriage. After Previn separated from her in 1968 during her hospitalization for a mental breakdown, Dory resumed her career as a singer-songwriter with On My Way to Where (1970), a critically acclaimed album whose confessional lyrics were described as "searingly honest", and chronicled both her mental health struggles and the infidelity that she alleged had at once precipitated the end of her marriage to Previn and exacerbated her intermittent mental illness. In 2013, jazz singer Kate Dimbleby and pianist Naadia Sheriff revisited Dory Previn's musical reflections on her marriage to Previn in the London cabaret show, Beware Of Young Girls: The Dory Previn Story.
Previn's third marriage, in 1970, was to Mia Farrow, whom he began dating in 1968. Previn and Farrow had three biological children together--fraternal twins Matthew and Sascha, born before they were married, and Fletcher, born in 1974. They then adopted Vietnamese infants Lark Song and Summer "Daisy" Song (born October 6, 1974), followed by Soon-Yi Previn, a Korean child whose age a physician's bone scan placed between six and eight years old and whose unknown birth date her adoptive parents estimated as October 8, 1970. Previn and Farrow divorced in 1979. Lark died on Christmas Day 2008, aged 35; reports at the time suggested she had died of AIDS-related pneumonia. In the aftermath of the scandal involving Soon-Yi and Mia Farrow's partner Woody Allen, Previn said of Soon-Yi, "She does not exist."
Previn's most durable marriage was his fourth. In January 1982 he married Heather Sneddon. They had a son, Lukas and a daughter, Li-An. Previn wrote a brief memoir of his early years in Hollywood, No Minor Chords, which was published in 1991, edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and dedicated to Heather. This marriage ended in divorce after 20 years in July 2002.
His fifth marriage, in 2002, was to the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom in the previous year he had composed his Violin Concerto. They announced their divorce in August 2006, but continued to work together in concerts afterwards.
Honours and awards
Previn was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. He won four times, in 1958, 1959, 1963 and 1964. He is one of the few composers to have accomplished the feat of winning back-to-back Oscars, and one of only two to have done so on two occasions. Previn was the first person in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations in one year (for the 1960 awards).
Previn died on February 28, 2019, at home in Manhattan at the age of 89. No cause was released.
Previn's discography contains hundreds of recordings in film, jazz, classical music, theatre, and contemporary classical music. Because of the huge number of recordings, the following lists are necessarily highly selective. A full discography (including LP/CD record codes) is available in Frédéric Döhl: André Previn. Musikalische Vielseitigkeit und ästhetische Erfahrung, Stuttgart 2012, pp. 295-319.
Previn made dozens of jazz recordings, as both leader and sideman, primarily during two periods: from 1945 to 1967, and from 1989 to 2001, with just a handful of recordings in between or afterward. He also did crossover recordings with such classical singers as Eileen Farrell, Leontyne Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, as well as several easy-listening records with piano and orchestra in the 1960s (beginning with Like Young: Secret Songs for Young Lovers, 1959, with David Rose and His Orchestra).
"From Ordinary Things": Sonata for Cello and Piano; Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano; Two Remembrances for Soprano, Alto Flute and Piano; Vocalise for Soprano, Cello and Piano (1997, with Sylvia McNair, Yo-Yo Ma and Sandra Church) OCLC664702000
Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon (1997, with Cynthia Koledo de Almeida and Nancy Goeres) OCLC36578670
"Music of André Previn": Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon, Peaches for Flute and Piano, Triolet for Brass, Variations on a Theme by Haydn for Piano, A Wedding Waltz for Two Oboes and Piano (1998, with the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble) OCLC39802171
"American Scenes": Sonata for Violin and Piano "Vineyard" (1998, with Gil Shaham) OCLC610630921
Double Concerto for Violin, Contrabass and Orchestra; Piano Concerto; Violin Concerto "Anne-Sophie"; Three Dickinson Songs; Diversions; "I Can Smell The Sea Air" from A Streetcar Named Desire (2009, with Renée Fleming, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Roman Patkolo, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, San Francisco Opera Orchestra) OCLC311799824
^Previn mentioned in the liner notes of the programme printed for his appearance as guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the 2006-07 season that his year of birth was 1930, and not 1929 as many sources claim.
^Frédéric Döhl: André Previn. Musikalische Vielseitigkeit und ästhetische Erfahrung, Stuttgart 2012, p. 127.
^Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, Berkeley 1998, p. 278 - as quoted in Frédéric Döhl: André Previn. Musikalische Vielseitigkeit und ästhetische Erfahrung, Stuttgart 2012, p. 140.
^Martin Bookspan/Ross Yockey, André Previn. A Biography, London 1981, S. 124 - as quoted in Frédéric Döhl: André Previn. Musikalische Vielseitigkeit und ästhetische Erfahrung, Stuttgart 2012, pp. 139-140.
André Previn, No Minor Chords. My Days in Hollywood, New York 1991.
André Previn (Ed. and Introduction): Orchestra, London 1979.
André Previn / Antony Hopkins: Music Face to Face, London 1971.
Helen Drees Ruttencutter: Previn, New York 1985.
Frédéric Döhl: Book Musicals im Jazz um 1960: André Previns >Modern Jazz Performances. In: Lied und populäre Kultur/Song and Popular Culture. Jahrbuch des Deutschen Volksliedarchivs 58 (2013), pp. 73-105.
Frédéric Döhl: André Previn. Musikalische Vielseitigkeit und ästhetische Erfahrung (engl. André Previn. Musical Versatility and Aesthetic Experience), Stuttgart 2012, 351 p. (contains sheet music samples from Violin Concerto Anne-Sophie (2001), Brief Encounter (2009), Cello Concerto (2011), and for the first time full catalog raisonné, filmography and discography).