No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood by André Previn
When André Previn died just a month short of his 90th birthday a couple of weeks ago, the world of music lost one of its real nice guys. I immediately dug out my copy of his Hollywood memoir which was published back in 1991 to revisit his stories of the early days of his career.
Previn’s family emigrated from Berlin to the USA via Paris in 1938, André was nine. By the time they got to New York, André had already shown great prowess at the piano, having had lessons since he was six and spending time at the Paris Conservatoire learning musical theory. They moved to LA, where André went to Beverley Hills High School. At the age of sixteen he started working at MGM in the music studios after school, where he quickly made himself useful and learned the tricks of the film composing trade, getting useful advice from the veteran composer Leo Arnaud:
‘Listen, mon vieux,’ he confided one day. ‘When you are orchestrating for a true musical illiterate, then it is perfectly okay to take advantage of that situation here. We don’t get any credit, so the idea is to make as much money as possible. When I am asked by one of our innocents to ghost-write some chase music, for Western posses or gangland car rides, the music has to be very fast, eh? Well, write the meter in 3/8. This means that’ – and he sang a demonstration – ‘bubbidy bubbidy bubbidy bubbidy, two seconds of music is already a page, whereas a more normal 4/4 of 12/8 bar would only take up a quarter of a page with the same notes. Mind you,’ he continued, ‘this must only be done with those employers of ours who can hardly read music. With the good ones, it would be dishonest.’
These were interesting lessons in variable morality for a teenager.
Previn was involved in the music for more than fifty films, getting his first composing credit for a Lassie film in 1949. He went on to get eleven Academy Award nominations and won four times – back to back Oscars – twice, for Gigi and Porgy and Bess in 1958/9, Irma La Douce and My Fair Lady in 1963/4.
Previn’s memoir is no sterile list of films he worked on. Instead it’s a celebration of the hard-working composers, orchestrators and arrangers and the musicians who perform the film scores. But alongside working at the studios, he would moonlight at jazz clubs playing piano. Of course later, he would concentrate on being a classical conductor with top orchestras, giving him an unusually broad range of top class musical experience, but that side of his life is only briefly touched on in this book.
It’s also hilarious! Previn has a wonderful sense of humour and loves a good gossipy story. He was also more than happy to make himself the butt of a joke – the comedy highlight is a sidesplitting pair of encounters with Ava Gardner.
The title of this memoir, comes from MGM boss Irving Thalberg, who had been bothered by something in a soundtrack.
‘What’s that in the music? It’s awful, I hate it,’ he said.
The edge in his voice required an answer, even if that answer was untainted by knowledge. One of his minions leapt forward. ‘That’s a minor chord, Mr Thalberg’, he offered. The next day, an inter-office memo arrived … It read as follows: ‘From the above date onward, no music in an MGM film is to contain a “minor chord”. ‘
Peopled with many film stars, directors, producers and countless musicians and studio executives this volume of witty reminiscence was an absolute pleasure to re-visit. We will greatly miss André Previn. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. André Previn, No minor chords (1991) – sadly out of print.