André Previn: No Minor Chords -My Days in Hollywood. Doubleday 1991
A review by Len Mullenger
The family spent six months in Paris during which time André, who was only 10, was able to attend classes at the Conservatoire as a student of the composer and organist Marcel Dupré. Then, in November 1938, the family emigrated to the USA, eventually settling in Los Angeles where a relative was a musical director at Universal Studios. Because André did not speak English his father instructed him to attend the local cinema and see the same film many times as a way of picking up the language and its colloquialisms. André admits that this worked pretty well and he was able to get a good grasp of English although he could never get to grips with Trade Winds in which the leading man and lady both play the parts of twins - a plot apparently baffling enough even with a good grasp of English.
André attended Beverley Hills High School where he became well known because he directed the School Band - and even wrote arrangements for it. He also played piano after school hours for a local dancing studio as well as accompanying at the Rhapsody Theatre which specialized in silent films. By sixteen he was writing arrangements for local radio shows including the Fanny Brice show and a weekly half- hour with Hoagy Carmichael and the Teenage Band.
José Iturbi once had a career as a classical pianist but had succumbed to the lure of money and indolence and had agreed to play himself in some Hollywood movies. This had been successful enough until he was asked to play in the jazz idiom and was found wanting - so André Previn was sent for. The director was Georgie Stoll, who had been the musical director for all the Judy Garland - Mickey Rooney films. When it was found that Previn was able to write and orchestrate; and was also young and, therefore, cheap, MGM offered him work and a contract. The contract would mean Previn finishing his schooling at the Studio School. He did go along to the school and found it attended by the young Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Powell, Darryl Hickman and others, all resenting the fact that they had to endure the state-minimum required schooling. André decided all this could wait and went back to his own school until he graduated. Consequently he did not actually sign a contract with MGM until 1948, when he was 18, and he then stayed with them for sixteen years encompassing the finest years of Hollywood; when stars were STARS and every film made money - and it was GLAMOUR! (and sex).
Previn's book brings those years to life. It is the most amusing read, full of little vignettes concerning the vanity of stars; the stupidity of directors but also the sheer talent of the emigré musicians who made up Hollywood's orchestras; able to sight read brand new music, cope with changes as they went along and then record it with the minimum delay and the maximum professionalism. There are some wonderful stories: Pasternak was filming Small Town Girl in which the script demanded a chamber concert. Pasternak asked André to find something in the public domain so that there would be no problem over royalties - but the piece had to include a piano. Previn chose the first movement of the Schumann Quintet. Once recorded, the piece was sent off to Pasternak who immediately got on the phone: Hey ! that's a great piece, Kid; its so terrific that I want to use more of it than I originally planned. But, since I like it so much I want you to record it again, and this time with the full orchestra. He was not kidding; André refused and was temporarily suspended.
Not only was Hollywood full of film stars but a great many other notables lived there too: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninov, Bruno Walter, Einstein, Thomas Mann - and Previn was able to meet them all. Above all there was the great violinist, Joseph Szigeti, who was a champion of new works. Every mail brought new scores which were piled up all over the music room so that, in desperation, he mentioned to a friend that he was in need of a pianist to help him try out the works. Previn was summonsed for audition and acquitted himself without disgrace. Szigeti announced that it was time to relax and that perhaps Previn would join him and a friend in a Beethoven trio. On discovering that Previn was unfamiliar with the Beethoven trios, Szigeti demanded that he attend every Monday evening to be introduced to the Beethoven trios and those of Schubert, Brahms etc. This directly led to Previn forming the Pacific Art Trio with the violinist, Israeli Baker and cellist, Edgar Lustgarten, both of whom were also involved in film work. They toured the West Coast. When they came to rehearse the Shostakovich trio (presumably No 2) they could not agree on the tempo for the first movement so they decided to call Shostakovich and ask him. André dialed Moscow Information and after much effort was put through to an English speaking interpreter - a member of the League of Composers, who asked Previn to ring back at a certain time next day - when there, on the line, was Shostakovich!
Because of the Korean war, Previn was called up in 1950. During the digging of a latrine trench, he was summonsed to the orderly room and handed a telegram which informed him that he had been nominated for his first Oscar. He thanked the officer in charge and returned to digging the latrine trench; whereupon he collapsed in a fit of giggles at the sheer absurdity of his situation. In all, he was awarded 14 Oscars but claims that this is the only one where he can clearly recall the circumstances when he was given the news.
Whilst in the army he met Chet Baker and used to visit jazz clubs with him - the difference being that Chet always went up and played! In every spare minute Chet would practice his trumpet; after lights out, in the toilet... he was constantly in trouble but he just ignored all warnings. Eventually he was judged unfit for military service and demobilized. As Previn puts it he was the only musician who practiced himself out of the army. Whilst in San Francisco with the army, Leonard Bernstein introduced Previn to Pierre Monteux who was director of the San Francisco Symphony. Monteux took a liking to Previn and agreed to see him as often as possible so Previn agreed to stay in San Francisco once he had fulfilled his National service and to postpone his return to Hollywood. Previn found Monteux to be a superb mentor.
On his return to Hollywood, Previn was involved in many important movies including Kismet, Gigi, Porgy and Bess, My Fair lady, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Jesus Christ Superstar. Previn relates anecdote after anecdote e.g the peacock in Kismet being made to display its tail feathers on cue by having a pointed stick jabbed into its nether regions. There were so many retakes for technical reasons that the peacock came to know what was going to happen.
When Vincente Minnelli was filming Gigi in the Bois de Boulogne, he wanted two dozen black swans to swim on a small lake. The French production manager had learned to respect the director's wishes but Minnelli's vocabulary was not perfect and he had asked for two dozen singe (monkeys) rather than cygne (swans). The next day 24 monkeys appeared. After the shouting died down, it was explained to Minnelli that black swans were rather rare in France but there was a French Cabinet Minister who was known to breed them. By the next morning there they were, floating serenely on the pond. The manager confided to Previn that it had been a diplomatic triumph to persuade the Minister to part with them. Aren't they beautiful, Monsieur Minnelli? asked the manager proudly. Minelli turned, and as he walked away threw over his shoulder: Not Black enough!
Space precludes relating any more tales from this fascinating book. But what of the title - No Minor Chords?? This stems from Irving Thalberg who was running a new MGM film through a projector and found the music irritating. What is wrong with this music? he asked. One of his staff informed him that the reason he did not like it was because it contained a minor chord. The following day a memo arrived that read From the above date, onward, no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord.
This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society
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