Reilly, Tommy

Tommy (Thomas Rundle) Reilly. Harmonica player, composer, teacher, b Guelph, Ont, 21 Aug 1919, d Frensham, Surrey, England, 25 Sep 2000. His father, Captain James Reilly (1886-1956), a trumpeter and violinist, led (in Guelph, 1920-5) one of the first jazz bands in Canada. The younger Reilly studied violin at eight and began playing harmonica at 11 as a member of his father's Elmdale Harmonica Band. The band won several CNE competitions and Reilly won medals for solo playing in southern Ontario festivals. In 1935 the family moved to London. Though Reilly had played in England 1935-7 and continental Europe 1937-9, it was not until his arrest (while studying violin at the Leipzig Conservatory) and subsequent internment 1939-45 in prisoner-of-war camps that he developed his virtuosity on the harmonica, basing his ideas of phrasing and interpretation on the playing of Jascha Heifetz.

Returning to London in 1945, and resolved to establish the mouth organ as an instrument of high artistic worth, Reilly began parallel careers as a concert soloist and recitalist, a popular BBC radio and TV performer, and a studio musician-composer. He has performed with most of the major European orchestras, toured Europe several times with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, performed often at major festivals, including the 1982 Festival of the Sound, and performed in North America, Australia, and Africa. He remained based in the UK, but since first returning to Canada in 1982, appeared with orchestras in Toronto, Winnipeg, Quebec City (1991), and Calgary, among other places, and the 1993 Guelph Spring Festival.

Over 30 concert works have been composed for Reilly, including Michael Spivakovsky's Concerto, 1951, considered the first important full-scale concerto for harmonica, Robert Farnon's Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra, several works with orchestra and others with string quartet or strings and woodwinds by Reilly's accompanist James Moody, Matyas Seiber's Old Scottish Air for Harmonica, Strings and Harp, and Richard Rodney Bennett's Suite for harmonica and piano.

In the absence of a concert repertoire for the instrument, Reilly transcribed works by Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Smetana, Sarasate, and others. Reilly also composed short harmonica pieces, incidental music for the stock-music libraries of Chappell and other companies, and theme music for BBC TV and radio.

His first recording, for Parlophone, was produced by George Martin in 1951. He also performed music for the soundtracks of many US and European films and for several US TV series. Among the composers who wrote film scores expressly for Reilly were Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, and Dimitri Tiomkin. Reilly gave master classes 1966-8 at the Städtische Musikschule in Trossingen, Germany, at Fanfare 84 in Toronto, and annually from 1985 in Norway. He taught 1967-71 at the Tommy Reilly International Club in Surrey, attracting pupils from around the world. He wrote several textbooks for harmonica and continued to create widespread interest in the instrument through lecture-recitals, master classes, radio broadcasts, and teaching at the GSM. In 1967 he designed a concert harmonica, later manufactured by Hohner and marketed as the Silver Concerto Chromonica.

In 1992, Reilly became the first harmonica player to be made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. His other awards included the Gold Medal of the Deutscher Harmonika-Verband, and a Golden Badge from the British Association of Composers, Authors and Songwriters. Sir Neville Marriner and Stravinsky were among those who admired his playing.


Play Like the Stars (London 1952)

Progressive Exercises (London 1954)

Studies for the Chromatic Harmonica (London 1954)

Tommy Reilly Harmonica Course (London 1969, Oslo 1971)