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Andre Previn, Four-Time Oscar-Winning Composer, Dies at 89

Oscar-winning film composer and symphony orchestra conductor Andre Previn died Thursday at his home in Manhattan, his manager confirmed to the New York Times. He was 89.

The former enfant terrible of motion picture scoring and accomplished jazz pianist was honored with four Academy Awards. He won the first two, for best scoring of a musical picture (a category that has since been retired), for “Gigi” and “Porgy & Bess” in 1958 and 1959, respectively, while still in his 20s. He then won two for best adaptation or treatment (another retired sub-category) in 1963 and 1964 for “Irma la Douce” and “My Fair Lady,” respectively.

He later abandoned films to conduct such esteemed orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Previn’s jazz influence was pianist Art Tatum and, from the age of 12, he developed a proficiency in jazz piano, which led to his first film assignment at age 16, while still a senior at Beverly Hills High School (where he teamed musically with songwriter and fellow student Richard M. Sherman). Previn transcribed an improvised jazz number for concert pianist Jose Iturbi to play in the film “Holiday in Mexico.” Over the next few years, Previn worked at MGM — where his great-uncle, Charles Previn, who’d been music director at Universal, did a brief stint — playing rehearsal piano and other odd jobs, including synchronizing film soundtracks.

In 1949 he was given his first original score assignment, “The Sun Comes Up,” a Lassie picture, about which he recalled, “I thought it was easy, but I have since put myself through the wringer of watching it on a television rerun, and it’s the most inept score you ever heard.”

It was, however, good enough to win him a contract as a composer-conductor at MGM, a career that was interrupted by the draft in 1950. During his military stint he wrote arrangements for the Sixth Army band and played in San Francisco jazz spots. Resuming his career in 1952, he adapted such stage musicals as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Kismet,” “Silk Stockings” and “Bells Are Ringing” for the big screen.

Previn composed original scores for the musical “It’s Always Fair Weather” in 1955 as well as part of the score for Gene Kelly’s experimental 1956 film “Invitation to the Dance.”

In addition, he wrote songs and scores for such ’50s films as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Designing Women” and “Hot Summer Nights.” In the ’60s and ’70s, he wrote scores for “Elmer Gantry,” “One, Two, Three,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Kiss Me, Stupid,” “Inside Daisy Clover,” “The Fortune Cookie” and “Rollerball.” Previn contributed songs and music to “The Swinger,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Catch 22,” “The Music Lovers,” ‘Valley of the Dolls” and “Mrs. Polifax — Spy.” His final score was for 1980’s Paul Simon movie “One Trick Pony,” though he conducted for “Six Weeks” two years later.

Previn’s score for 1960’s “The Subterraneans” reveled in his passion for jazz, which he had been recording and playing in clubs for almost 15 years, even forming a combo with Red Mitchell and Frank Kapp. Along with Shelly Manne, he recorded several jazz albums, the best selling of which was “My Fair Lady,” an interpretation of the Lerner and Loewe score. A similar effort was “Andre Previn and Friends Play Show Boat.”

Previn also made classical recordings, starting in the 1950s, with the complete four-hand piano music of Mozart. He wrote songs for the likes of Judy Garland and Doris Day.

In 1969 he wrote the score for the Broadway tuner “Coco” (Alan Jay Lerner wrote the lyrics), based on the life of designer Coco Chanel; it won the Tony for best musical.

Occasionally, he would guest conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, by the 1960s, he began to curtail his film and jazz work to concentrate on classical music. For years he conducted in small cities to gain experience and overcome the label of a Hollywood composer.

Born Andre George Previn in Berlin, he was enrolled in the Berlin Conservatory of Music at age 6 after his father discovered he had perfect pitch. But in 1938 Previn was expelled from the conservatory for being Jewish and his family fled to Paris, where he studied at the Paris Conservatory. In 1939 the Previn family emigrated to Los Angeles, where the young Andre studied composition with Joseph Achron and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In his teens he played in, and occasionally conducted, the California Youth Symphony and arranged and orchestrated works for local radio shows.

In 1967 he succeeded John Barbirolli as chief conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. In 1968 he was named principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was not renewed by Houston in 1969 but kept busy with a repertoire heavy on 20th century scores with the London Symphony, many of which were recorded, particularly after he moved from Columbia Records to RCA in the mid-’60s.

Also with the London Symphony he introduced a number of his own compositions, including “Overture to a Comedy,” in 1966.

He then moved on to the Pittsburgh Symphony, London’s Royal Philharmonic and, in the mid-’80s, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He resigned in 1989 after continued battles with Music Center executive director Ernest Fleischmann.

Previn’s private life was dotted with touches of scandal.

Previn was married five times, the first time to jazz singer Betty Bennett. His second marriage was to Dory Langan, aka Dory Previn, a lyricist with whom he collaborated on several Oscar-nominated film scores and who explored the collapse of their troubled marriage in an album. His third wife was actress Mia Farrow, for whom he had abandoned Dory Previn (he and Farrow were subsequently divorced in the wake of her liaison with Woody Allen). Previn’s tied the knot for a fourth time with Heather Sneddon and, finally, in 2002, to the renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, nearly 35 years his junior, after he had composed a concerto for her, titled “Anne-Sophie.” They divorced four years later but continued their musical partnership unabated.

Survivors include two daughters from his marriage to Bennett — Claudia Previn Stasny and Alicia “Lovely” Previn (a violinist for the Irish band In Tua Nua and a founding member of the Young Dubliners); three biological children from his marriage to Farrow — Matthew, Sascha and Fletcher; two daughters adopted with Farrow, including Soon-Yi Previn (the latter of whom Andre Previn disavowed after the scandal involving Soon-Yi and Woody Allen); and an adopted daughter, Li-An Mary, and a son, Lucas Alexander, from his 20-year marriage to Sneddon.

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