Tommy Reilly’s life’s soundtrack

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of one of harmonica music’s superstars, Tommy Reilly, is a new compilation album by Chandos, the classical music record label. A Life In Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly is compiled by Sigmund Groven and David Reilly.

You can purchase digital files already now but to be released physically on August 2nd is the CD A Life In Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly (cat. no. CHAN20143) which sees 30 of the Canadian musician’s recordings on one disc. Most of the tracks, which range from Reilly’s own compostions via classical music by Bach and Chopin to tunes by Cole Porter and James Moody, were recorded either in Oslo or in London, many of them with either Sigmund Groven or sir George Martin as producers. Many rare and previously unreleased recordings are included.

The new CD.

Born in Ontario in August 1919, Tommy Reilly studied violin from the age of eight, and began playing harmonica at the age of eleven. Though he had played in England in 1935 – 37 and continental Europe in 1937 – 39, 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, Reilly began parallel careers as a concert soloist and recitalist, a popular BBC radio and television performer, and a studio musician-composer.

David and Tommy Reilly, 1967. (Photo: Reilly family archive.)

He subsequently performed with most of the major European orchestras and toured all over the world as a concert soloist. Inspiring the composition of more than thirty works by other composers, Reilly also transcribed a great deal of repertoire for the instrument, in addition to composing his own works. In 1967 he designed a concert harmonica, later manufactured by Hohner and marketed as the Silver Concerto Chromonica. In 1992, he 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 Igor Stravinsky were among those who admired his playing. Reilly also became Sigmund Groven’s teacher and lifelong friend.

Tommy Reilly (right) with George Martin, Munich, 1980. (Photo: Sigmund Groven.)

The tracks on the new album was selected and compiled by Sigmund Groven and Tommy’s son David, especially for this occasion. The CD’s booklet has extensive liner notes and tributes (in English, French and German), also written by them.

Tommy Reilly was an exceptional musician. To him the harmonica was a vehicle which he used to express himself musically. His playing covered the whole range of human emotion – it was thrilling, xpressive, and lyrical; characterised by phenomenal virtuosity, beauty of tone, and, above all, musical depth and sense of phrasing. Sigmund Groven

The new collection displays “musical miniatures” in many different styles. When Tommy Reilly started his career there was no original music for harmonica so he transcribed and arranged short pieces, both classical and popular. As the collection expanded into no less than 30 tracks, it became the virtual soundtrack to Tommy Reilly’s life.

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