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.

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.

The French horn (more properly called the horn, according to many enthusiasts) is formed from 20 feet of coiled brass tubing that opens into a flared bell. A descendant of the hunting horn, it is capable of producing rousing fanfares as well as musical lines of sublime delicacy, but only in the hands of the most skilled musician.

The embouchure, or position of lips and mouth, necessary to coax musical notes from the horn’s twisted metal is notoriously tricky. Mr. Tuckwell compared playing the 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.”

“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, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Tuckwell became the leading interpreter of the small but exquisite repertoire for French horn. It includes four concertos by Mozart, which Mr. Tuckwell recorded several times over, two by Richard Strauss, and works by composers as disparate as Cherubini, Bruckner, Brahms, Ravel and Shostakovich. Contemporary composers including Oliver Knussen, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave and Robin Holloway wrote works for him.

Mr. Tuckwell “almost never misses a note,” the music critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 1977. “His agility might be compared to that of a coloratura soprano. His tone is rich, and variously colored and shaded. His legato exhibits a singing line and a faultless feeling for accent and phrasing. His staccato attacks, made with the help of the tongue, are firm, and where desired remarkably rapid, and his articulation has enormous variety.

“All these qualities have caused him to be called, with some justice, the Jascha Heifetz of the horn,” Sargeant continued, referring to the celebrated violinist.

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 and an internationally known authority on the opera.

Mr. Tuckwell said that he could read music before he could read books but that he did not seem destined for a life in music before he tried the horn.

“I really wasn’t any good at them,” he recalled of his early experimentation on the piano, violin and organ. “One day somebody said, ‘Look, he’s musical, he must be able to play something. Try this.’ And it was a French horn, and it was something I could do. So I was very lucky.”

He said he drew inspiration from the musicianship of American jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey, whose recordings he studied avidly. In 1950, after performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and later the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Tuckwell moved to England, where his appointments came to include a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Mr. Tuckwell led the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Australia before founding his ensemble in Hagerstown, a small city in western Maryland. He had been drawn to the area by Walter A. Lawson, a widely admired French horn maker who lived in nearby Boonsboro.

“I didn’t know there were this many tuxedos in Hagerstown,” one attendee quipped to The Washington Post when the Maryland Symphony Orchestra debuted in 1982.

On Mr. Tuckwell’s retirement, Lawson, who died in 2007, told the New York Times that his friend had “taken an orchestra that played really simple stuff, a sort of civic symphony, and made it into one that can perform Mahler’s First Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth very well.”

“He’s a real conductor,” Lawson said. “He has left his imprint here, and the town loves him.” Mr. Tuckwell lived for a period in Hagerstown and became a U.S. citizen before returning to Australia.

His marriages to Sally Newton, Hilary Warburton and Sue Elliott ended in divorce.

He and Darling, companions of 14 years, were married last year. In addition to his wife, of Melbourne, survivors include two children from his first marriage, David Tuckwell of London and Jane Tuckwell of Bromham, in Wiltshire, England; and a son from his second marriage, Tom Shahani-Tuckwell of London.

Reflecting on the difficulty of his instrument, Mr. Tuckwell told the Independent that “horn-players have evolved a kind of freemasonry over the years — a fierce sense of loyalty. If someone is having a bad night, the others will do what they can to cover him. Because nobody, but nobody, else really understands our problems.”

But he also reported moments of transcendence. In one of the final performances of his career, he played a horn concerto by composer Reinhold Glière and told the Baltimore Sun that he “was very pleased with it.”

“It was one of those evenings,” he remarked, “where you say to yourself, ‘I finally did something worthwhile.’ ”