No Minor Chords

Andre Previn’s career has taken many turns. Best known today as a world-class symphony conductor and musical composer, he came to the United States, a German refugee, in 1939 at age ten. Eight years later he was an accomplished pianist composing Hollywood film scores, on his way to winning four Oscars in thirteen nominations. His Hollywood sojourn, covered in this book, lasted from 1948 to 1964. Previn fondly recalls this period as the film capital’s “final days of true excess” when every film brought a profit and—despite what he calls the studios’ “plantation” mentality—those who made films had fun.

Previn was earning “quite a bit of money,” his friends were “generous and kind,” and he was surrounded by “chorus girls gleaming in the California sun . . . Who could resist? . . . Certainly not I, not yet, not then,” he admits. Ultimately he did resist this happy existence, trading the Hollywood work that was “not seriously daunting” for symphonic “work that would frighten me.” Hollywood’s attitude to serious music is captured in Previn’s title, drawn from an Irving Thalberg decree that “no music in an MGM film is to contain a ’minor chord.’”

Episodic though it is, two elements make Previn’s brief memoir cohere: his light, charming tone, and his organization into chapters on producers, directors, screenwriters, and members of other film disciplines. In this day of bitter exposes, he has scarcely an unkind word for anyone, although implicitly he has his greater and lesser favorites. For example, he left Hollywood to avoid ending his days “manufacturing music that was played while Debbie Reynolds spoke.”

Neither he nor his colleagues thought their compositions for film would be remembered by later generations. But they were; in fact, Previn won Oscars for the music in GIGI, PORGY AND BESS, MY FAIR LADY, and IRMA LA DOUCE.