The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Tommy Reilly

He won a place on the concert platform for the humble harmonica

by Robert White

Thursday September 28, 2000

The range of "classical" instruments is much the same now as it was 200 years ago; while the instruments of Beethoven's orchestra have continued to evolve, few others have joined them on the concert platform. Tommy Reilly, who has died aged 81, was fascinated by the potential of the harmonica, and became one of the handful of musicians to secure a place in the concert mainstream for an instrument from outside the existing club.

Igor Stravinsky commented, "After hearing your interpretation of my Chanson Russe, I would be happy to let you play anything of mine": many composers wanted to write for Reilly, and he enjoyed an outstanding career as a performer and composer for film, television and radio.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, Tommy Reilly was the son of Captain James Reilly, to whom, as with military bandmasters down the years, "crossover" came as second nature - he conducted symphony orchestras, and founded not only one of Canada's earliest jazz bands, but also the Elmdale Harmonica Band, a prizewinner at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in the early 1930s. The military musical environment is exceptional in that wind players often learn string instruments too: Tommy Reilly started learning the violin at the age of eight.

In 1935, the family moved to England, where Reilly made his professional debut as a harmonica player a year later. While keeping up his violin studies, he toured the variety theatres of the continent. At the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, he was a student at the Leipzig Conservatoire. The Gestapo arrested him, and he spent the whole period of the war in prison camps in Germany, Poland and France.

The discipline of classical string-playing and the time made available by enforced leisure gave Reilly both the framework and the space to unlock the full expressive range of the harmonica. As Richard Morrison wrote in the Times after the first performance of Paul Patterson's Harmonica Concerto in 1987, "Reilly's determination to establish the 'highbrow' credentials of his solid silver instrument has been matched by his skill at coaxing lyrical, musicianly sounds from this most intractable of sources."

In 1945, Reilly returned to Britain, where regular radio broadcasts in the late 1940s made him a household name, and work followed right across the musical spectrum. The first of 30 major concert works written for him was the concerto by Michael Spivakovsky, broadcast as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Others followed from composers such as Gordon Jacob, Vilem Tausky, George Martin, Robert Farnon and James Moody. Martin produced Reilly's first recordings, 78rpm discs on the Parlophone label, in 1951, and Farnon also wrote for Reilly in his film scores, as did Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith, Dimitri Tiomkin and Ron Goodwin (Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines).

Reilly's own contribution to music for film came with the 1959 movie version of The Navy Lark, and he also supplied the jaunty interludes to the long-running radio series. His many television credits included Dixon Of Dock Green, The Last Of The Summer Wine and The Singing Detective.

Later recordings covered arrangements of virtually anything tuneful, from British folksongs and popular classics - works by Mendelssohn, Fauré, Walton, Grainger, Smetana and Borodin - to the main theme from John Barry's score for Midnight Cowboy (1969). He also consolidated his achievement as a concert artist with recordings of Vaughan Williams's Romance for harmonica, strings and piano, and the harmonica concertos by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Malcolm Arnold.

In 1967, Reilly had the first silver concert harmonica made to his specification, and he wrote many tutors and studies for the instrument. An OBE for services to music in 1992 was followed by awards from fellow musicians - those of the Deutscher Harmonika-Verband and the British Association of Composers, Authors and Songwriters. Reilly's worldwide reputation as a teacher and the new artistic stature he had brought to his instrument were both recognised when he was asked to conduct a harmonica masterclass at the internationally renowned Dartington summer school in 1998.

Tommy Reilly leaves his wife Eva, son David and two grandchildren.

Larry Adler wrote: "Tommy Reilly was a player for whom I had deep respect. He had a style of his own, immediately recognisable. I always wanted to play the Bach Double Violin Concerto with Tommy, but the opportunity never arose. There are many good mouth organists, most of them imitating either Tommy or me, but Tommy never needed to imitate anyone. He was unique, in a class by himself. I will miss his wonderful playing: he didn't even have a close second."

Thomas (Tommy) Rundle Reilly, harmonica player, born August 21 1919; died September 25 2000

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

Editor's note: Tommy Reilly left us with no less than ten major works written for harmonica and six fine CDs which are still available from Chandos Records.

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