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Barry Tuckwell, an Australian virtuoso of the French horn whose mastery over his fiendishly difficult instrument brought him international renown as the preeminent hornist of his era, died Jan. 16 at a hospital in Melbourne. He was 88.

The cause was complications from heart disease, according to his wife, Jenny Darling.

Mr. Tuckwell grew up in a musical home — his father, an organist, manned the hulking Wurlitzer at the local movie theater — but he showed only moderate musical promise during his early years playing the piano, violin and organ.

Only at 13, when he first picked up a French horn, did his prodigious talent shine through. Mr. Tuckwell was still in his teens when he began playing professionally with orchestras in Australia. He was 24 when, in 1955, he became principal horn player with the London Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for 13 years.

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Thus began a musical career that would take him around the world over half a century. In 1968, Mr. Tuckwell left the London symphony to strike out on his own, becoming one of the vanishingly few horn players to establish solo performing and recording careers. He was widely described as the most recorded hornist in history.

A case of ‘‘right arm disease’’ — his jesting term for the lure of the conductor’s podium — led him to pursue conducting opportunities, as well, and in 1982, he became founding music director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown. Mr. Tuckwell retired from performing in 1997 and left his post in Maryland the following year, eventually returning to his native Australia.

Mr. Tuckwell compared playing the French horn to ‘‘driving a Daimler at top speed on a slick road’’ — even the slightest mistake could have disastrous consequences — and likened the experience of making music on one to ‘‘posting a letter.’’

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‘‘You put [air] in there, and God knows what happens to it on the way,’’ he once said in an interview with the television program ‘‘CBS This Morning.’’ ‘‘With a bit of luck,’’ he added, the air reaches the other end of the instrument as music.

By all accounts, Tuckwell had more than a bit of luck. A German music critic, once cited by the London Independent, observed of a Tuckwell performance that ‘‘if the hunter had played like this, the deer would have died from ecstasy.’’

Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell was born in Prahran, a suburb of Melbourne, on March 5, 1931, to a family of Welsh origin. His mother played the piano. His sister, Patricia, played the violin and later married George Lascelles, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.