Obituary: Sir André Previn

Versatile musician who embraced the film and classical music worlds


He was hailed as one of the most talented musicians of the 20th Century who crossed the musical floor many times, from conducting to composing, from film to classical, from jazz to comedy. The five-times-married André Previn, son of German Jewish refugees, enjoyed life in every dimension of sound.

Previn, who has died aged 88 or 89 – disputed because his birth certificate was lost in the family’s escape – was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also musical director of orchestras in Houston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Oslo.

But in another role he was an Oscar-winning film composer, raking up a legion of awards for his compositions and recordings. These included four Academy Awards for his film work and ten Grammy Awards for his recordings, a Lifetime Achievement Award plus an honorary knighthood. Three out of 13 Oscar nominations came before his 25th birthday. He received his first two Academy Awards for incidental music for Gigi (1958) and Porgy & Bess (1959), and two more for his work on film adaptations of Irma la Douce (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964).

But Previn was also a jazz virtuoso, a pianist-interpreter and arranger of songs from The Great American Songbook.

He could be an acerbic interviewee. When one journalist turned up at his Knightsbridge hotel for a pre-arranged interview, a grumpy Previn barked down the phone that he had woken him up. Quizzed on his émigré Jewish background, he barked – “Nothing to say!” In fact there was plenty to say: the enforced move to America totally marked the fork in his career.

At the age of five the young prodigy was studying at Berlin’s prestigious Hochschule für Musik. But in 1938 his family fled Nazi persecution.

Born Andreas Ludwig Priwin, he was the youngest of the three children of Charlotte née Epstein and Jack Previn. Clearly gifted, he was enrolled at six at the Berlin Conservatory but in 1938, despite his full scholarship, his studies were curtailed because of his Jewishness. Previn’s father saw the writing on the wall and applied for American visas.

By October 20, 1938, the family arrived in New York City, and on to Los Angeles where Jack’s second cousin Charles Previn was musical director at Universal Studios. After naturalisation in 1943, Previn studied English, his third language after German and French, through comic books and films.

As a student at Beverly Hills High School he played a duet with songwriter Richard M Sherman at his graduation ceremony, and was offered work as a composer and orchestrator in Hollywood. But even before he graduated, he was scouted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s music department, and the 16 year old left school and began writing film scores for them. It heralded a 16 year Hollywood career.

Previn did his military service in 1950 and while stationed with the Sixth Army Band in San Francisco, he studied conducting with Pierre Monteux of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Returning to MGM he became captivated by jazz.

He recorded prolifically as piano-accompanist or trio pianist, usually with bass and drums, to singers of jazz standards, like Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day.

But at 32, he resigned from MGM to gamble on the classical world. At first he found that world closed and impenetrable, spurning his Hollywood track record and attempts to find work as a conductor. “They would just as soon forgive you for an axe murder as for having done a movie!” he joked. Eventually he won through. He replaced Sir John Barbirolli as musical director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and between 1968 and 79, became principal conductor of the LSO.

Mozart was one of his favourite composers, but he was proud of his LSO recordings of the Vaughan Williams symphonies. It would have been good to ask how he felt about his near complete cycle of orchestral works by Richard Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1980s and 90s. This was their music, he emphasised. But did it represent a tradition which had rejected him as a Jew in Nazi Germany?

In lighter mode, the “Previn moment” came when he performed straight man in a spoof of Grieg’s A Minor Piano Concerto at a 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, attracting over 25 million viewers. Morecambe was the unfortunate “soloist” and Previn was introduced as “Mr Andrew Preview.” The name stuck and was frequently hurled at Previn by amused London taxi-drivers.

New orchestrations included music for Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1971) and Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975), to be followed by Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), featuring a full orchestra on stage.

In 1979, he left his job at the LSO and began performing jazz again, highly praised by Dizzie Gillespie. This was followed by a four years stint with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1980s.

Previn continued to perform well into his 80s and even composed an opera, which blended A Streetcar Named Desire with Brief Encounter . It received mixed reviews. Other works included overtures, tone poems, concertos, sonatas, a string symphony and chamber music.

Previn’s marriages were prolific but rarely enduring. They included jazz singer Betty Bennett, with whom he had two daughters; Dory Langan, his song-writing partner; Mia Farrow, with whom he had three children plus two adopted from Vietnam and one from Korea; Heather Seddon, his longest at 20 years and finally violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2002, who lamented in a tribute: “Right now André is probably in the middle of a jam session with Oscar and Wolfgang … and he will outplay them!” He is survived by nine of his children. His daughter Lark died in 2008.



André George Previn: born April 6, 1929/30. Died February 28, 2019


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