André Previn, conductor and Oscar-winning composer, dies at 89

André Previn, the renowned conductor and composer who won Oscars for his work scoring films, has died. He was 89.

Previn died on Thursday at his home in New York City, according to the New York Times. He was a musical legend, known for his gigs conducting London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic amongst several others. Previn was also a gifted composer and pianist, with a body of work that spanned genres. Most famously, he recorded as a jazz pianist with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, but he was also known for his work composing everything from musicals, orchestral pieces, operas, and concertos.

For movie audiences, Previn was best known for his work scoring films. He composed scores throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, providing the musical backdrop for a wide range of projects, including A Catered Affair, It’s Always Fair Weather, Elmer Gantry, and Irma La Douce. In 1961, he achieved the remarkable feat of securing three Oscar nominations in on year — for the scores to Elmer Gantry and Bells are Ringing, as well as the song “Faraway Part of Town” from the comedy Pepe. 

Overall, he was nominated for 13 Oscars and won four times for orchestrations the pre-existing scores for My Fair Lady, Gigi, Porgy and Bess, and writing the original score for Irma La Douce. 

The musical legend was also well-known in the 1960s for having his name in the gossip pages when his affair with Mia Farrow led them to both leave their respective spouses (in Farrow’s case, her high profile marriage to Frank Sinatra) for each other. They had three children together and adopted two others, including Soon-Yi, who would herself make headlines following her marriage to her step-father Woody Allen in 1997.

Farrow honored Previn’s memory upon news of his death, sharing a recent photo of the two of them with the caption, “See you in the Morning beloved Friend. May you rest in glorious symphonies.”

André Previn was born Andreas Ludwig Prewin on April 6, 1929, in Berlin. He began studying piano at the age of six at the Berlin Conservatory and continued his studies in Paris and Los Angeles when his Polish-born Jewish father moved their family in 1938 and again in 1939 to escape the Nazis.

Previn studied classical piano throughout his youth before being drafted into the Army in 1950 and serving with the Sixth Army Band. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he kickstarted his career in Hollywood at the behest of his great-uncle Charles who was a music director for Universal. He had already worked for the studio in high school, assisting on 1946 MGM musical Holiday in Mexico by writing a jazz piano part for concert pianist Jose Iturbi to record for the film. MGM then signed him to compose the score for Lassie film The Sun Comes Up. He stayed with the studio for over a decade, and in the course of his career, he performed, composed and conducted music for over 50 films.

He won his first Grammy in 1958 for the soundtrack to Gigi, but went on to win ten total for his work across a variety of genres. He had a diverse career as a recording artist, playing a host of classical and jazz concerts throughout the 1960s, which were notable for their mixing of genres jumping from concertos to jazz trios. His albums included jazz arrangements of songs from My Fair Lady, a collection of Christmas carols with Julie Andrews, and two albums with Dinah Shore amongst numerous others.

Previn’s composing career also extended to the Broadway stage. After orchestrating the score of My Fair Lady for the big screen, he partnered with Allan Jay Lerner in  to write musical Coco, a 1969 musical about fashion designer Coco Chanel starring Katharine Hepburn. He also penned the music for 1974 West End musical The Good Companions alongside Johnny Mercer as lyricist.

His varied career as a conductor first brought him to the Houston Symphony Orchestra as music director in 1967, but within a year, he moved on to the post of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1979. During that time, he headlined BBC Television program André Previn’s Music Night. 

After London, he moved on as the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1984 before returning to London as principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1988. He concluded his career on the podium at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was music director from 1985 to 1989.

In the 1990s, Previn dipped into opera, writing an opera version of Tennessee William’s immortal play A Streetcar Named Desire. Set to a libretto by Philip Littell, the opera premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 1998 with star Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois and Previn conducting. His second opera was 2007’s Brief Encounter, based on the David Lean film of the same name.

Previn also wrote books, including 1979’s Orchestra, a look at the lives of orchestral musicians, and 1991’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood about his experiences working on movies.

He also had a colorful personal life, marrying five times in total. His first wife was singer Betty Bennett, and they had two daughters, Claudia and Alicia, before divorcing in 1958. Next, her married Dory Langan, a singer and MGM lyricist whom he often collaborated with. After their divorce in 1970, which was prompted by his affair with Mia Farrow, Langan kept the surname Previn and recorded several albums under her married name, Dory Previn. They were both nominated for Oscars for their work writing songs for 1960’s Pepe and 1962’s Two for the Seesaw. She later wrote about the experience of her husband’s affair in the song “Beware of Young Girls.”

After the splashy nature of their affair, Farrow and Previn’s marriage was a fruitful one. They had three children, twins Matthew and Sascha, and Fletcher, as well as adopting Summer Song, aka Daisy, and Soon-Yi. After Farrow, Previn married Heather Haines Sneddon, and they had son Lukas in 1984 before their divorce in 1999 after 17 years of marriage.

His final marriage was to Anne Sophie-Mutter, a concert violinist who was 39 to his 72. He had previously written her a violin concerto in 1999, but they did not marry until 2002. In 2005, Mutter won a Grammy for best instrumental soloist performance playing a concerto Previn wrote and conducted for her.They divorced in 2006, but still continued to perform together over the years.

Previn received many honors throughout his lifetime, including the Kennedy Center Honors lifetime achievement award in 1998, where he was honored by ex-wife Mia Farrow.

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