A career in composition with George Dreyfus

Rows of hardback books, notated film scores and family photographs line the walls of George Dreyfus’s living room. One of Australia’s most prolific film and television composers, it may be surprising to learn that the internationally-acclaimed, Melbourne-based composer didn’t always know that he wanted to pursue music professionally. Born in 1928 in Wuppertal, Germany, his father opposed the notion of him becoming a musician on the basis that he, presumably, wouldn’t be able to make a reliable income from his work. Out of sheer stubborness, Dreyfus was determined to prove him wrong.

In the lead-up to the Monash Academy Orchestra’s Celebrating George Dreyfus concert, we visited the composer at home to learn more about what motivated his foray into composition for film and television, how contemporary European music has influenced his practice, and why he was kicked out of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

MLIVE: When did you first become interested in music and composition? Was there a defining moment or person that influenced your decision to pursue music professionally?
George Dreyfus: My parents were very musical. My father was a terrific pianist but he couldn’t make a living off that. But at Melbourne High School I was interested in music and played in the school orchestra… So that’s where I started—Melbourne High School. I don’t think it was something that I wanted to professionally pursue. In fact, my father didn’t want me to do it because, you see, it doesn’t provide a fixed income. They never would of become musicians in good, old Germany. It would of been below their dignity. But no, I saw it through and in the end, just out of sheer cussedness. I didn’t want to stop playing music because the others would of won and I wasn’t prepared to be a loser.

MLIVE: Born in Germany, you migrated to Melbourne with your family in 1939. How has your European heritage and exposure to contemporary European music influenced your practice?
George Dreyfus: If you look around this room it’s full of other people’s stuff (mainly German composers) but from all sorts of the world, which I copied assiduously when I was writing music for money. I knew people would want something they already had in their heads but couldn’t write down themselves. They didn’t want anything original from me. They wanted something that sounded like somebody else’s music and so I spent my life copying other people.

‘I knew people would want something they already had in their heads but couldn’t write down themselves.’

MLIVE: So you wouldn’t say it’s your own?
George Dreyfus: Ah, I think it is. I think it’s very individual. Cliff Green [the screenwriter of the ABC television series Rush] was sitting here in this room and said, ‘use the Old Palmer Song… I want you to use it for the theme music for Rush’, but I didn’t. I made a variation of it which took off. The Old Palmer Song has never taken off. Not in the time it was written in the 19th century or to this day where no one is interested in Australian folk music. It’s all gone, but the Theme from Rush is a very interesting development of the Old Palmer Song.

MLIVE: After playing the bassoon in the Victorian Symphony Orchestra (now the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)…
George Dreyfus: I was in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra until they through me out.

MLIVE: They threw you out? Why did they throw you out?
George Dreyfus: Oh, yes… I would say they were primarily envious but secondly also because of my bad behaviour—but I didn’t see my bad behaviour at all. There was never any question that I could play well, that never was the issue. But just the way I’d look at them, they’d complain, ‘he doesn’t look right!’.

MLIVE:  …and studying at the Imperial Academy of Music in Vienna you moved into composition. What motivated your foray into composition for television and film?
George Dreyfus: Well, I started off as a serious composer. I wrote a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon, Opus 1, which is still being played and available on CD. I played the bassoon part, a close friend of mine in Perth (where I was living at the time and playing in the orchestra) played the clarinet, and my first wife played the flute. I wrote for those who were about—made myself useful. Film and television came later when Tim Burstall rang here at eleven o’clock and said, ‘I need a composer for my film series!’.

MLIVE: You are widely known for your theme music for the ABC television Series Rush. How did this project come about and what impact has it had on your career?
George Dreyfus: Well, Cliff Green, who was the screenwriter, talked to the director and they told me what they wanted. He [Green] told me to use the Old Palmer Song, which I did, and by that time I had already been writing film music for 11 years. I was in good nick, I was much younger and I was full of enthusiasm. I was inspired, just like that, to change the Old Palmer Song into something that people liked.

MLIVE: Where there any moments in your career where it found it difficult to be inspired?
George Dreyfus: A lot of the directors didn’t like the music I’d write for them so I may have found it quite hard, but no. Composition always came quite easily to me and if it doesn’t come easily to you, you shouldn’t be a composer. If you’re a street sweeper and if sweeping the streets doesn’t come easily, you should find something else to do. If you don’t find something easy, don’t do it.

MLIVE: You have a beautiful garden. Can you talk about the water fountain you have out the back?
George Dreyfus: It’s a bush garden, like the music for The Sentimental Bloke. ‘It’s a bush band, not a rock band’ [laughs]. The huge trees must have been here for years. I’ve been here since the 1950s so I’ve been here 60–70s years. Just to annoy everybody else, I keep planting new trees. As for the water fountain, that was Bruce [Beresford]. His girlfriend rang and said ‘Bruce wants you to come to New York to do the music for Tender Mercies’ and I said, yes. It took awhile to catch an aeroplane, I wasn’t going to pay for my own ticket to New York. I didn’t have the money, and then you get to New York and there’s no film. So finally the ticket arrived and I wrote the music, and Bruce didn’t use it, but I had a fabulous couple of months in New York and the orchestra, which was an old fashioned orchestra, said ‘George, Mr Dreyfus, you write such lovely music, come again!’ but he didn’t ask me again. But then I got this lump sum of money and I thought, well if I just put it in the bank it will disappear bit by bit so I bought the fountain… for me to remember that I once had this lump sum of money.

Celebrating George Dreyfus
Sunday 15 April 2018, 2.30pm
Robert Blackwood Hall