Professor Barry Tuckwell AC OBE b.1931

Barry Tuckwell

Professor Barry Tuckwell

Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell, perhaps the world’s greatest French horn player, was born in Melbourne on 5 March 1931.

When he was 13 Tuckwell abandoned the piano for the notoriously difficult and fickle French horn.

He moved to London in 1950, studying there informally with the great horn virtuoso Dennis Brain.

 

The god of the horn

‘I was always fascinated by sounds,’ said Barry Tuckwell. ‘I can remember just playing single notes on the piano, and listening to the overtones, and the sounds and the magic. I took up the piano and violin, but I didn’t have the right digital dexterity for those instruments. Then I overheard a chance conversation between my sister, Sir Charles Mackerras and Richard Merewether who was second horn in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I was 13, and she said, “What can we do about Barry? He’s musical, and he must be able to play something.” And the horn player said, “Well, why doesn’t he try the horn?” It was a simple, wonderful and, for me, historic moment, because if they hadn’t been sitting together at that particular moment in that particular coffee lounge in Sydney, I may have become a music critic or something dreadful like that.’

Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell, perhaps the world’s greatest French horn player, was born in Melbourne on 5 March 1931. He came from a musical family. His father played the organ – mostly the ‘mighty Wurlitzer’ in movie theatres – and it was he and an older brother who gave Barry lessons in violin and piano. When the family moved to Sydney he attended St Andrew’s Cathedral School, sang in the cathedral choir, and served as an organist there.

When he was 13 Tuckwell abandoned the piano for the notoriously difficult and fickle French horn, which he studied with Alan Mann at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. His progress was rapid: two years later he was a horn ‘extra’ with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After a period with the Melbourne Symphony he returned to Sydney as the SSO’s principal horn player. During his three years with the SSO he performed every major horn concerto in the standard repertory.

His brilliant musicianship inevitably drew him to explore greater opportunities overseas. He moved to London in 1950, studying there informally with the great horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. Though Tuckwell was close to both Dennis and his father Aubrey, and he was influenced by Dennis Brain’s style, his own self-criticism led him to develop a different and totally distinct sound. He also drew inspiration from the recordings of jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey.

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Biographical references

Charles Buttrose: Playing for Australia, Macmillan, 1982
Robert Peterson: ‘Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997