Andre Previn conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic © Tony Barnard, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A Life In Music

As the SOI prepares to present André Previn’s music for Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, we take a look at the extraordinary musicality of the man who was a prolific composer, an acclaimed conductor and an inventive jazz pianist.

When he died on 28th February 2019 at home in New York, André Previn was remembered as a conductor of some of the world’s great symphony orchestras (he was artistic director of no less than seven of them) through a career which lasted over 70 years. The various tributes struggled with the bewildering breadth of his career, focussing on the many awards—four Oscars, ten Grammy awards including a lifetime achievement in 2010—his work on television as both educator and occasional comedian, his likeability, his five marriages and the nine children who survive him; but the published compositions, stretching from the 1940s up until the year before his death were largely ignored. Everyone who writes about Previn is left with the same problem: how do you summarise the life and work of such a polymath?

The biographical facts are simple enough: Born in Berlin in 1929 into a sophisticated Jewish family, his father was an eminent lawyer. Previn’s musical abilities were recognised early and he was enrolled as a student at the Hochschule in Berlin as a child before the Nazis forced his family to the U.S.A. via Paris. In 1939, when they settled in Los Angeles, where his brother already lived and where his cousin was in the music department at MGM, Previn spoke not one word of English. But his talent soon won him work in the world of film music, initially as an orchestrator, latterly as composer. His first assignment was a Lassie movie, one of the series of adventure pictures featuring a dog called Lassie. “Like all Lassie pictures,” remembered Previn in a typically self-deprecating interview, “there was hardly any dialogue, but a lot of barking. I thought it was easy, but…it’s the most inept score you ever heard.” After serving in the U.S. military, and years of working in what he described as “glorious Technicolor and glorious anonymity” in the film industry—and those four Oscars would argue that Previn’s idea of anonymity contrasts sharply with that of most people— he made the difficult transition into the world of the symphony orchestras, making his debut as conductor in 1963 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. During this time, he had also established an international reputation as a jazz pianist, releasing several hundred recordings to great acclaim. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” he once said, “but a musician who occasionally played jazz.”

Over the following decades, he conducted all over the world, establishing himself as a leading conductor of his generation. He especially championed English music—particularly Walton and Vaughan Williams— and made England his home for several years, where he was principal conductor of the internationally famous London Symphony Orchestra from 1968 until 1979. He latterly appeared often as a guest, conducting his last concert with them in June 2015. He made many recordings with the LSO. The orchestra appointed him Conductor Laureate in 1992 and Conductor Emeritus in 2016. Many other orchestras, notably the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and the Vienna Philharmonic, complete his catalogue of over 300 recordings.

Alongside all this eye-catching activity, almost lurking in the background, was his steady if not prodigious output as a composer. At the time of his death, there were some 44 titles published in his name: two operas, two major musicals, six concertos, instrumental and chamber music, music for children, many song cycles and theatre works, including the 1983 play Rough Crossing and the unique Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, both by Tom Stoppard. There were, unsurprisingly, a number of long interruptions in his output but he returned to composition in 1985 with a piano concerto written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, and thereafter the stream was fairly continuous until his death. Among his last works was a second opera, Brief Encounter, and the violin concerto “Anne-Sophie”, written for his wife, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. In his 80th year, he finished a second concerto for Mutter, a concerto for harp, an orchestral piece called Owls, a concerto for orchestra and a monodrama (with a Stoppard libretto) called Penelope which was premiered at Tanglewood in 2019.

The overall picture is one of a determined communicator: Listen to him playing jazz, admire the flair and the scope of his invention, and it is easy to forget that he spent most of his adult life leading the major orchestras of the world in performances of music written by other people. Watch him conduct, controlling and shaping performances of often hundreds of performers, and it is in sharp contrast with a man who describes himself as at his happiest playing chamber music or accompanying other musicians. Hear him speak or watch him present television programmes, and ponder the thought that English was his third language, after German and French.

Previn’s near contemporary Leonard Bernstein was more widely forgiven for working in so many contrasting media and idioms, but Previn’s apprenticeship in film work proved harder to shrug off, and why should he have wanted to do so, pandering to the entirely artificial separation of artiste and craftsman? Undoubtedly, his activities as a performer have meant that his work as a composer has been somewhat overlooked. It is easy to forget that he was composing for nearly 40 years after his withdrawal from the film industry, a move he described as a difficult but a definite choice. Maybe the innate modesty of the man had also decided that winning four Oscars was enough for anyone?

Composing music is a lonely business, and perhaps posed a special challenge for such a compulsive communicator, a man so interested and engaged with the world of his time, with less of an eye on history than might be expected. Fellow émigré, composer Kurt Weill repeatedly trumpeted that he “didn’t give a damn about posterity”, and in an interview in the remarkable 1998 documentary André Previn: The Kindness of Strangers, Previn himself told us: “I enjoy composing very much and I’m always composing something. I have no delusions about it, and I don’t ever give it a thought whether things will be played years and years from now; I just want them to be played next Wednesday.” In February 2019, André Previn finally ran out of Wednesdays, but his music remains forever.

By Matthew Scott. Mathew Scott is a composer, musician and former Head of Music at the National Theatre in London. He is the Music Supervisor of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the October 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.