By Scott Ross
Of his early days scoring music for the movies Andre Previn once noted, “When I composed, I heard my music played by the orchestra within days of completion of the score. No master at a conservatory, no matter how revered, can teach as much by verbal criticism as can a cold and analytical hearing of one’s own music being played. I would mentally tick the results as they came at me: that was pretty good, you can use that device again, that was awful, too thick, that mixture makes the woodwinds disappear, that’s a good balance, and so on.” When one reads that statement, and remembers that Previn began arranging for MGM at 16 (and composing at 17) some indication of his proficiency, beyond the tender year of his initiation and the innate talent he must have shown the brass at the Musical Department, emerges. For a quick study, as young Andre quite obviously was, those instant analyses were clearly more than merely formative. One need only look glancingly at the great innovators of the scoring game — Waxman, Herrmann, Rózsa, Raksin, North — to comprehend how invaluable that immediate resource must be to increased facility and, when applied with genius, to artistic advance.
Previn’s is one of those names I learned early, from the back of the My Fair Lady soundtrack LP (and the front of the Firestone Julie Andrews Christmas album) in my parents’ record collection. It was only later that I was introduced to his work as a composer, conductor and — most joyously — a jazz pianist and bandleader. When a man has been an integral component of your musical life for almost as long as you’ve been alive, you may naturally be somewhat defensive about him. As with his contemporaries, the Sherman Brothers (at their high school graduation Previn played a duet with fellow student Richard M.) I bristle at criticism directed toward Sir Andre’s musicianship. Gary Giddins, one of our finest contemporary critics, not merely of jazz, with which he made his name, but of movies, is absolutely vicious on the subject of Previn (as he also is on Quincy Jones), and for reasons I cannot wrap my brain around; his comments on Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder on the Criterion edition drip with notably poisonous contempt for Previn’s similar endeavors. Why?
But then, jazz writers tend themselves toward more than a little defensiveness on the subject of composition. Hence the dubious, and more than slightly hysterical, assertion by so many jazz aficionados that Ellington is the greatest of all American composers, a claim that falls apart on the evidence. A great songwriter, surely (although the contributions of Billy Strayhorn to Ellington’s oeuvre cannot be overstated) and an interesting composer of some fine movie and ballet scores (Anatomy, The River) but hardly on a par with, say, Gershwin, in symphonic endeavor. For that matter, Ellington’s individual songs are no better than those of Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser — which is to say, of the highest quality but hardly beyond it. And where Arlen and Porter bestow joy on their listeners, Ellington inspires admiration. Not exactly the same thing.
It is true that Previn’s Broadway and movie musical scores are often less interesting than those of his contemporaries, but that may stem to a degree in his working so often either with lyricists who were not operating at their highest (as with Comden and Green on It’s Always Fair Weather) or those who were floundering artistically and whose projects with Previn were not, shall we say with kindness, their finest (Alan Jay Lerner on just about everything after the Broadway Camelot.) Yet even within these projects are musical gems that glitter, however feeble their light. I’m thinking especially of items like “Gold Fever” and “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door” in the bloated but entertaining 1969 movie of Paint Your Wagon, the former performed with splendidly laconic musicality by Clint Eastwood, the latter containing what may be my very favorite lyric (“There’s so much space between / The waiting heart, and whispered word…”) There were occasional glories (the Previn/Johnny Mercer score for the London Good Companions, if not the show itself, and Previn’s superb collaboration with Tom Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) and, here and there, the odd success d’estime (the needless and polarizing opera of A Streetcar Named Desire.) It is, then, not for his theatre compositions that Sir Andre will be best recalled.
Previn’s movie work is far more varied and successful.* He wrote a fine jazz-based score for Two for the Seesaw, a spectacular one for The Subterraneans, and there is real, disturbing power in some of the others: The propulsive, whirling, dangerous main title theme for Bad Day at Black Rock; the elegiac dissonance of Long Day’s Journey into Night; the soured waltzes (precursor to Jerry Goldsmith’s similar writing on The Boys from Brazil) and ominous percussion of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the uneasy ecclesiasticism of Elmer Gantry.
But Previn’s comedy scores are even better, particularly those he arranged for Billy Wilder. He composed a pleasing waltz and juggled Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” into and around the short score for One, Two, Three; adapted part of the Gershwin trunk for the reviled but surprisingly plangent Kiss Me, Stupid; wove Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come To” into an ironic statement for, and added another comic waltz to, The Fortune Cookie. For Irma La Douce, Previn both adapted Marguerite Monnot’s original stage melodies and composed his own, as it were, contrapuntal score. It’s a tribute to his gifts as an arranger that you can’t tell the difference between his work and Monnot’s unless you know the London or Broadway (or original French) Irma. The love theme Previn wrote for Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine is among the most achingly beautiful ever composed for a movie romance, comic or dramatic.
Previn’s great (pace Mr. Giddins) jazz legacy is his series of small-combo recordings, often with Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne, many of which concentrated on a single Broadway or Hollywood musical (Pal Joey, My Fair Lady, Bells are Ringing, Li’l Abner, Gigi, Camelot) or a specific composer (Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke.) As often as not, however, these glittering, exquisitely tempered albums feature Previn’s own sprightly, infectiously melodic compositions, rendered either in piano solo (or, as in his collaboration with Russ Freeman, duo) or with bass and drum. (Latterly, Previn’s collaborators have included Ray Brown, Joe Pass and even Itzhak Perlman.) Since their debuts, these superb sessions have been non-pariel. To this day only Terry Trotter’s series of Sondheim scores arranged for trio on Varèse Sarabande have come close to the lilting, gentle, playful originality of the “show” discs produced by Previn & Co.
Previn, whose conducting for movies goes back to the late 1940s, took on his first symphonic assignment in 1967 (the Houston Symphony) and went on to lead the LSO, the Pittsburgh, the Royal Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Phil, not always to the satisfaction of all. Indeed, it is, oddly, as an orchestral conductor that Sir Andre has interested, and satisfied, himself the most, and me the least — a surprise considering how efficacious his Hollywood work with the baton had been. His “classical” recordings often eschew effective tempi, either rushing or worse, elongating to the point of acute boredom. His recording of Peter and the Wolf, which he also narrates, is charming, in part because of that lovely, soft Mid-Atlantic accent of his.† But in general he neither inspires nor excites on the podium as the greatest conductors routinely have, and do.
Similarly, some of his creative decisions have been decidedly perverse. His collaboration with his then-wife Dory (née Langdon) on the songs for Inside Daisy Clover would make sense only had the filmmakers retained the contemporary backdrop of Gavin Lambert’s splendid original novel; since they set it instead in the 1930s, the Previn songs, such as the anthemic “You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” otherwise very fine in themselves, sound no more like they were written during the Warren-Dubin Depression era than Jay-Z’s raps for the recent The Great Gatsby actually reflect the 1920s.
As a raconteur and (somewhat reluctant) Hollywood survivor, Previn hit a personal high-water mark with his delicious memoir No Minor Chords, in which a few of his colleagues, past and contemporary, come in for some wickedly appropriate drubbing. Previn’s memories also make good copy for other biographers: His having to quite literally lock Alan Lerner in an upstairs office in order to get a single couplet out of that notoriously recalcitrant wordsmith, for example, or his reaction to Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s wonderfully scored but theatrically appalling White House musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Watching with glazed eyes as a silhouette of Lincoln ominously crosses behind an upstage scrim at the end of Act One, Previn recalls thinking, “I’m going mad.” That may be the single finest epithet I’ve ever heard for that rather historic Broadway bomb.††
Andre Previn turned 85 yesterday. Thank you, Maestro, for the pleasure you’ve given me nearly all my life. On balance, your own balance has been very good indeed.
*Previn was nominated for some 13 Academy Awards® for scoring and composition, and won four — all for adaptation: Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi; the same Porgy & Bess whose existing prints the Gershwin heirs are currently buying up and destroying; Irma La Douce; and My Fair Lady.
†Previn was born in Berlin, where he lived with his parents to the age of 10 before, as with so many assimilated German and Austrian Jews of that time, fleeing to America.
††That’s not a condemnation of the show’s score, which is full of glories. But as Stephen Sondheim once noted of his former West Side Story collaborator, Bernstein always aimed big, making his successes even bigger; subsequently he would not have, in Sondheim’s words, “a mini, mingy failure; he would have a big, pretentious failure.”
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross