Barry Tuckwell was born on 5 March 1931 in Melbourne, son of Charles Tuckwell, an organist, and his wife Elizabeth (5 March is known by many as the Horn Duumvirate Date, as it was the birth date of both Tuckwell and Philip Farkas, perhaps the two most notable horn players ever). He has an older sister, Patricia, a violinist and fashion model widely known as Bambi. She married the photographer Athol Shmith and later George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
After studying the piano, organ and violin as a chorister at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, Tuckwell was introduced to the horn at age 13 and was playing professionally within six months. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music under Alan Mann, one of Australia's most influential brass players. Tuckwell has said, "The horn chose me. Right from the beginning, it was something I knew I could do."
Tuckwell relates an anecdote regarding his choice of instrument: sitting in a cafe one day with his sister Patricia, Charles Mackerras and a horn player from the local symphony, Patricia speculated on what Tuckwell's future in music might be. The horn player suggested, "Why not try the horn?" Tuckwell did so and within two years was playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. With characteristic humour, when recounting this at the British Horn Society's festival in 2005, he turned to the audience and said, "One note a time, piece of cake!" The horn is often reckoned to be one of the most difficult orchestral instruments to master.
At 15, he was appointed by Joseph Post as third horn with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A year later, he joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens, where he remained for three and a half years before leaving for England. His first appointment in 1951 was with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. After two years, he went to the Scottish National Orchestra under Karl Rankl and a year later to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves. In 1955, he was appointed first horn with the London Symphony Orchestra.
During his 13 years with the LSO, which is a co-operative orchestra run entirely by the players, he was elected to the Board of Directors and was Chairman of the Board for six years. The chief conductors during this time were Josef Krips, Pierre Monteux, István Kertész and André Previn.
He resigned from the orchestra in 1968 to pursue a career as a soloist and conductor. For the next thirty years, he carved out a career exclusively as soloist — one of the few horn virtuosos to have done so, rather than combining occasional concert performances with an orchestral position or a teaching post. His last concert was with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1997.
He is one of the most recorded horn soloists, having made over 50 recordings. He has received three Grammy Award nominations.
In 1962 he formed a trio with Brenton Langbein (violin) and Maureen Jones (piano) for a performance of the Horn Trio by Don Banks, which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival. The trio played together for many years, touring in Europe, Asia and Australia until the death of Brenton Langbein. They recorded the Banks Trio, the Brahms Trio, and Quatre Petites Pièces by Charles Koechlin for Tudor records.
He formed a wind quintet in 1968, which also toured internationally.
Tuckwell is also well known as a conductor, appearing with leading orchestras in Europe and the United States. For four seasons he was Chief Conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and in 1982 founded the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. He enjoyed a long association with the Northern Sinfonia and was appointed their Guest Conductor following an acclaimed fourteen-concert tour of North America.
Recordings as a conductor include three CDs with the London Symphony Orchestra of music by Dvořák, Elgar and Wagner. More recently, he conducted the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in an ABC Classics recording of the Mozart horn concertos with soloist Lin Jiang and The Queensland Orchestra for Melba Recordings of horn concertos with Ben Jacks.
Many composers have written works for Barry Tuckwell. Oliver Knussen, Don Banks, Gunther Schuller, Robin Holloway, and Thea Musgrave have written concertos; Richard Rodney Bennett wrote "Acteon" for horn and large orchestra.
Barry Tuckwell has written three important books on the horn and horn playing. For the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides, he wrote the book on the horn. His definitive manual Playing the Horn was published by Oxford University Press (now out of print) as was Fifty First Exercises.
Tuckwell is famous for his master classes. He has been Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College and Pomona College in the USA, and he was Professor of Horn at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1963 until 1974. He served as Distinguished Visiting Faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s. He currently holds the position of Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and has for several years hosted the annual Barry Tuckwell Institute at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Tuckwell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1965 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1992.
Among the many other awards he has received are an Honorary Doctor of Music from the University of Sydney, Fellow of the Royal College of Music, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America, the Andrew White Medal from Loyola College, the Harriet Cohen Memorial Award, the J. C. Williamson Award, and most recently, the Sir Bernard Heinze Award for outstanding contribution to music in Australia.
He is also an honorary member of both the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
He was the first president of the International Horn Society and is currently honorary president of the British Horn Society and the patron of the Melbourne International Festival of Brass.
He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
In 2007, Tuckwell received the JC Williamson Award for his life's work in the live performance industry.