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George Dreyfus : Represented Artist

Random Audio Sample: Advance Australia fair; arr. (treble choir with full orchestra) : for juvenile performer(s) by George Dreyfus, from the CD Advance Australia fair

Photo of George Dreyfus

'I arrived in the world on 22 July, 1928. I chose Wuppertal, in Germany, because that city had what was at that time the only overhanging railway in the world, Die Schwebebahn, and I like trains.

And I chose my father and mother, Alfred and Hilde, not to mention my grandparents Wilhelm and Paula, Albert and Ida, who all had pots of money, cars, Kindermädchen and holidays in Switzerland and Czechoslovakia. And the home I chose was into culture, a good start for someone who finished up with music as a career.

Of course, in 1933 Germany turned sour for those of its population who were Communist, unionist, handicapped, homosexual or, worst of all, Jewish. For schooling and safety reasons my family moved from Wuppertal to the big city, Berlin. I made a tenuous start in art with piano lessons.

My parents, brother Richard and I just made it, escaping to Australia in 1939. My grandparents didn't make it. For a while my brother and I lived in a Melbourne children's home, Larino. Then we lived with our parents, in various flats in St Kilda. I resumed my piano lessons and on Saturday mornings sang in the synagogue choir. At Melbourne High School I went music-mad, conducting the choir, playing clarinet in the school orchestra and giving talks on Richard Strauss. I joined John Bishop's Junior Symphony Orchestra. The Dreyfuses may have been poor migrants, but I had music.

There were too many clarinettists about, so I enrolled at the Conservatorium as a bassoonist. The tuition was awful, my instrument was awful and I couldn't do the harmony and counterpoint. I failed! After that I cleaned carpets during the day with my parents for a year, practising and playing in amateur orchestras at night.

Then I got my first paying music job. It was heaven! Even if I could barely manage the difficult bassoon parts of all those fifteen operas that I played in the J.C. Williamson Italian Opera Season. It started at His Majesty's Theatre in 1948, and over the next year we travelled right around Australia, playing every night.

I stayed on at His Majesty's after the Italians had gone home, playing musicals, the Borovansky Ballet and the Gilberts. In 1953 I joined the ABC's Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. It was heaven again! Playing all those great orchestral masterpieces and, unlike His Majesty's Theatre, different music at every concert. I even thought I might become a better bassoon player, so I studied for a time at the Vienna Academy with the renowned Karl Oehlberger. I was asked to play the woodwind chamber music classics with my colleagues from the orchestra. Some of them encouraged me to write some new chamber music for them to play.

My early attempts at composition were tentative. I never had a teacher. I learned from copying the modern composers whose music I was playing in the Symphony Orchestra. The first piece I actually finished, my Trio Opus 1 for flute, clarinet and bassoon won the APRA Serious Music Award in 1986. Not bad for a piece composed in 1956! I kept on writing serious yet entertaining woodwind music which people enjoyed and my colleagues liked playing with me.

Like other young Australian composers of my generation, I discovered European contemporary music in the early 1960s. My compositions became very serious indeed and tunes were hard to find. Some of the reviewers applauded the change. Some, like the listeners, regretted it. I became Mr New Music of Melbourne. I formed contemporary music performing groups, I conducted, I organised. I was rewarded with travel grants, fellowships, residencies, commissions. I wrote symphonies, operas and more chamber music. I had the goods as a composer and could churn out the 'just right' music for the emerging film and television industry. For a composer, it was where the money was: it kept me going as a freelance. All those theme tunes made me famous: I became a Trivial Pursuit, a clue in the 'New Idea' crossword, a question on 'Sale of the Century'.

And moreover, the industry and I have given Australia some instrumental music which it likes and can call its very own. I don't think I could ever have done this with my German-based serious contemporary concert music or operas. But that's how the cards have fallen, and survivors should always be grateful.'

Further notes:

Dreyfus's most notable music for the screen is the theme from Rush, a television series from the 1970s. He has also been very involved in the area of community music-making. His autobiography was published in 1984, followed by a book of essays in 1998.

In 1991, Dreyfus was awarded the Australia Council's Don Banks Fellowship and in 1992 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to music. In 2002 he was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz 1. Klasse.

In the 1990s two major operas were premiered in Germany: Rathenau, based on the life of Walter Rathenau, a German Jew who was assassinated while serving as Foreign Minister in the Weimar Republic (1993), and Die Marx Sisters, based on the private life of Karl Marx in Soho, London (1996). His children's opera The Takeover, based on the Aboriginal land rights issue, was given its European premiere in Germany in 1997. Recent works include his Symphony No. 3, premiered in 2012, and a Saxophone Quartet (2007).

In 2013, George Dreyfus was awarded the Distinguished Services to Australian Music Award as part of the 2013 Art Music Awards.

Biography provided by the composer — current to July 2013

Teacher/Influence on

John Arthur Grant (1990 - current)

Awards & Prizes

Year Award Placing Awarded for
2013 Art Music Awards: Distinguished Services to Australian Music Winner
1992 Don Banks Music Award Recipient
1992 Order of Australia Member of the Order In recognition of service to music, particularly as a composer
1972 Albert H Maggs Composition Award First Prize Old Melbourne

Selected Commissions

  Work Commission Details
Digital sheet music sample Visions from the Old Testament : full orchestra (1982) Commissioned by the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra
Sextet for didjeridu and wind instruments (sextets: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, didjeridu, horn) (1971) Commissioned by Musica Viva Society of Australia.

Analysis & Media

Book: Being George : and liking it!, reflections on the life and work of George Dreyfus on his 70th birthday.

Book: Brush off! : saving 'The gilt-edged kid' from oblivion / George Dreyfus.

Book: George Dreyfus : ein Australischer komponist mit Mainzer Wurzeln.

Book: The last frivolous book / George Dreyfus.

Book: Select vocal works for female voice by six Australian composers / by Barbara Janet Wilson.

- Program note: George Dreyfus's "Restless"

- Article: Scored in black and white

- Article: Odd man out brings his many talents to town

- Article: Musician's festival honour

- Article: Bright's Didgeriddoo Delights the Spirits

- Video: Larino safe haven - extemporisation

- Video: Life is too serious (excerpt)