Barry Tuckwell in Conversation with Richard Fidler
ABC 15 October 2009 (Brisbane)
RF: Hello good morning. My guest for you today is Barry Tuckwell. Barry Tuckwell grew up in a musical home. He clearly had a fine musical ear but he couldn’t find an instrument that suited him until some significant people in the world of Australian music conspired to put a French horn in front of him and he went on to become the greatest international horn player of our time by many people’s lights. Barry’s playing has inspired contemporary composers to write more than 20 works for him and Barry Humphries has commissioned a piece for him too which you’ll hear a little bit later on and he’s made more than 50 recordings. Well, Barry Tuckwell is now living back in Australia after a career of more than 60 years on the world stage. He’s retired from formal soloist work but that doesn’t stop him from informal performance which still brings him great pleasure and his audiences too. Barry Tuckwell, good morning.
BT: Good morning.
RF: If you untangled the French horn, if you got that thing called the French horn and you tangled it to sort of make one long horn would it be very long?
BT: Yes it would be, depending upon which key it was built in because every key requires a slightly different length—it could be anything up to 20 feet long.
RF: 20 feet long. So it’s all bundled up to...
BT: If you stretched it out—yes.
RF: What’s the principle there? Is it the longer the horn is, the louder it is? Or the more musical notes you can get from it?
BT: The more notes you can get, because if you think of a bugle—[Barry sings a couple of natural notes from the bugle harmonics] bah, ba hba-bah, bahba-bah, bah—it’s just four or five notes. Well, the high notes are really difficult to get, perhaps beyond what human beings can achieve. There’s nothing in a bugle to make a sound—you vibrate the air column with your lips but if you double the length of the bugle, say from it’s about say a metre or so long to double that, you get the same sequence of notes an octave lower. So the high frequencies then become within the range that you want to use.
RF: You’re making a small raspberry noise with your mouth when you blow into it but that’s not the noise that is coming out the other end. What makes that glorious lovely noise?
BT: It’s the air column which is being vibrated. I don’t believe we are actually going Pfurp [busses lips together in a small raspberry] into a brass instrument but we are vibrating the lips to vibrate the air column. It’s like plucking a string on a violin or a guitar. It’s the same principle.
RF: And it resounds within the tube of the thing and that’s the air column that’s resounding that creates that lovely big noise?
BT: Yeah, what we’ve got is what we call a harmonic series which you can get on any length of tubing – or any stringed instrument, they all exist. It’s like the spectrum in colour.
RF: Is it, how?
BT: Well it’s a mathematical thing—it’s to do with vibrations. Well, colour is vibrations—visual vibrations and this is aural vibrations. Every sound you hear, like this glass [taps glass]—ping, ping, ping—you hear that note but there are probably a whole lot of other notes that we don’t perceive but they’re there.
RF: When you tune a guitar you pluck harmonics off it by resting your finger upon the string, right on the fret and you pluck it and you get this bell-like sound out of it.
BT: It’s the same thing.
RF: How is that, coming out of a French horn?
BT: If you halve the length of the string with your finger or a third or whichever, you get different harmonics. It’s the same thing. Well you get it on a brass instrument by varying the tension of the lips and the airflow, the air support.
RF: Does that give you another sound that’s an octave above or…
BT: If you blow hard enough, yes…
RF: That must sound lovely.
BT: ‘Tis if you do it the right way.
RF: The French horn is special because you have your fist inside it while you’re playing. What’s the fist doing?
BT: Ah, well now that goes back a couple of hundred years or so when it was just like a bugle and you could only get this harmonics series. You could only get a certain number of notes and somebody found if you put your hand in the bell you can bend the notes so you play a note like wooo and if you close it with your hand you get woo-ooor-oooh and so you had more notes at your disposal and that way of playing has continued, although we don’t necessarily accept for certain effects the use of the hand for that reason.
RF: You’re bending the note with it though.
BT: Oh, yes.
RF: You’re bending the note. I didn’t know that.
BT: Oh, yes.
RF: You’re bending the note with your fist inside the French horn.
BT: Well, all the Mozart concertos were written for a horn to be played that way but a lot of the notes you hear aren’t on the actual harmonic series. They’re achieved by adjusting the hand in the bell.
RF: Talking to a colleague here, she was saying that a friend of hers wanted to take up a career with French horn but she also wanted to be a model and she had to give up the French horn because she was told or she understood that playing French horn for a long time actually changes your face, it actually…is that true?
BT: Ah, is that…I wondered what went wrong. Well now I…No, I haven’t heard that one.
RF: You’d look different then.
BT: That sounds like a good excuse to stop.
RF: Maybe that’s what she told her parents. ‘I have to give up French horn so I can do this modelling career.’ Why is it called a French horn? Why a French horn?
BT: It’s only called a French horn in the English-speaking world and I believe it’s because the English hunting horn was quite a short device and would only make noises [sings imitating fox hunting horn] oowair, oowair noises, like that. Whereas the longer European horn could produce these harmonic series and when they started using it as a musical instrument in Britain, or probably in England, maybe Scotland, I don’t know, but certainly in Great Britain they referred to it, the musical one, as the French horn because it was the nearest neighbour using a long hunting horn. There is no other possible reason for it to be called that.
RF: So elsewhere, it’s just called the horn, then?
BT: Yes. : Corno Whatever... Waldhorn
RF: I’ve seen video of you playing, video image of your playing an alp-horn, a big, big, long horn that’s about 15 feet long or thereabouts.
BT: No it’s about 9 or 10 feet actually. Just looks longer.
RF: And again, it’s just the same principle—it’s just not curled up.
BT: Yes, I just play different notes on it but there’s no apparent, there are no keys on it. There’s nothing. It’s just a length of…a wooden horn used to bring the cows in and where I live in the country there are cows and things around and occasionally I’ll go outside and make some noises and the cows come towards this sound. It attracts them in some way.
RF: Is it like their mother? Does it sound like their mother lowing?
BT: Perhaps, it does. Maybe it’s sort of food or something.
RF: Where does it evolve from? Does it evolve from like an actual literal horn from an animal?
BT: Yes, an animal horn, a small job which was an arc and then they made them out of metal and when they made them longer they continued that so it was a hoop.
RF: It’s even the most improbable thing because you know if you blew into one end of a horn you’d just get a fff [wind blowing sound] sound wouldn’t you?
BT: Unless you buzz your lips.
RF: Unless you buzz your lips.
BT: And the same applies to sea shells, conch shells and that sort of thing and they are used in a similar way in the Pacific area and for signalling because the sound carries a long way and curiously enough a danger alert is a repeated sound—Dadadada-Dadadada—and that’s the same everywhere. That must be a human instinct.
RF: Then the horn has its origins as a signal? It’s like, not quite an alarm but it’s like ‘everyone pay attention something’s happening’.
BT: Yes, it was used on the hunting field as a signalling and there were all these different—they tend to sound the same but were subtly different about where the prey was going or what they were hunting, or whether they’d lost it or whether they killed it and then it was often used ceremonial as a sort of end of the hunt, that sort of thing. It was used for a hunting—a signalling instrument like a walkie talkie.
RF: Has that affected the way it’s been written for with an orchestra? Because often when you hear horn in a Mozart piece you—and I’ll play a little bit of you playing Mozart in a moment—but sounds like something’s begun, something’s started, ‘pay attention, sit down, be quiet, watch this!’.
BT: Yes, and each of his horn concertos—the third movement is like a hunt and you get da-dorit da-dorit da-dorit all these little hunting signals thrown in just for fun.
RF: Has it evolved since then? Have composers and players like yourself been able to find a broader range, a broader emotional range for the instruments?
BT: Well what happened in the middle of the 19th century, actually it was the beginning of the 19th century, they were always trying to find ways of making this instrument more chromatic rather than just having to stuff your hand in the bell which had its defects because the closed sounds were quite muffled. They started putting keys on instruments, and that sort of thing, brass instruments and eventually somebody, or there were actually two guys who were clamouring for the rights to build instruments for the military bands—money, you know—and they perfected this system of valves which is a way of just adding on extra loops of tubing so you can get that harmonic series in different keys and that is how the modern horn is used. You see all these sort of coils, extra coils and maybe three or four keys to operate them. You’re just adding extra loops of tubing to put that harmonic series in a succession of semi-tone at a time lower and lower until you’ve got a full chromatic scale at your disposal.
RF: And how has that been able to affect the emotional range of the instrument to go beyond the sound of ‘come on chaps, let’s get on our horses and ride’? Is it able to express melancholy or pain or fear or tension or all those things?
BT: I’d say melancholy for the horn because it’s unsurpassed for the brass instruments in being expressive and playing melodies. And the trumpet, it’s more agile than the horn. And similarly the trombone is more agile. But neither of those instruments produce a quality of sound quite like the French Horn.
RF: My guest in conversation is Barry Tuckwell, one of the world’s great French horn players, the man who began his career many, many decades ago in Australia. He’s travelled all over the world, performed as soloist with many great orchestras now back living in Australia once again. There’s a lovely story French horn players know about Richard Strauss, the great composer Richard Strauss, a great favourite of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s and about the first time he heard the French horn. Please tell me that story, it’s a lovely story.
BT: Well I think it’s told by his mother who said when he heard the sound of the violin he cried but when he heard the sound of the horn—and his father was a horn player—when he heard the sound of the horn he smiled.
RF: Is it the loudest instrument in the orchestra?
BT: Oh, no. Trombone’s probably the loudest.
RF: Nonetheless, I suppose a large part of performance has to be about restraint then? About keeping rein on the power of the instrument you have.
BT: Well if you look into an orchestra in general, you know, you’ve got all the woodwinds and when you hear a Tchaikovsky symphony being played, you never hear the bassoons because they don’t make enough noise. You know, you’ll hear the brass instruments probably dominating but the horn is not the loudest instrument.
RF: That must be hard on the bassoon players, knowing that they’re not really going to be heard.
BT: That’s a bassoon player’s life.
RF: They’ve got to do all that work and they’ve got to lug it from gig to gig don’t they and here’s you making all this noise. But suppose with great power comes great responsibility as they say—because you notice it when the horn goes wrong, don’t you?
BT: That’s the cross we have to bear. We feel persecuted that with the horn there’s this one note in the concert that people point and said—‘the horn player missed a note’. But the pianist probably misses 25 notes and nobody pays any attention to that. It’s not fair.
RF: It sounds like a teenager whose voice is breaking doesn’t it? There’s a bit of a nrrr [imitating the sound of a voice cracking] sound there. Here’s Barry Tuckwell just to give you a taste of his musical proficiency here he is playing some Mozart here. This is from the last movement of Mozart’s third concerto for horn with the English Chamber Orchestra…
BT: And that’s Barry Tuckwell there performing as a soloist with the English Chamber Orchestra performing part of the last movement of Mozart’s third concerto for horn, with the English Chamber Orchestra as I said. Barry Tuckwell is my guest in conversation.
RF: Do you remember recording that Barry?
BT: Very much. It was several, several days making that. The other concertos and various chamber music pieces and some duets. It was a three vinyl box set which I’m glad to say has been reissued quite recently on to CDs.
RF: When you record an orchestra, I mean I’ve never seen an orchestra being recorded I’ve only been with pop groups, rock groups and the like. How does that process take place? Do you separate parts of the orchestra or do you all play at the same time in the same room differently miked up?
BT: Yes, yes, you perform more or less as you would in a concert hall. As opposed to pop records where everyone is divided up and you play in your own individual box and you’re probably all on a separate track and it so can all be adjusted in the final editing. But an orchestra is more or less like a concert hall except there is no audience.
RF: Barry you were born in 1931 in Melbourne and is it true you could read music before you could read words?
BT: Oh, yes it was much more interesting. And there was always music in the house. My father was a professional organist and pianist so there was always music there and I found music more interesting than books at that stage.
RF: You could read the dots on the page?
BT: Oh, it’s easy.
RF: Not that easy for some, I’m afraid.
BT: It’s easier than trying to read a chart about a television set. Those charts to me are incomprehensible.
RF: And what about pitch? You had perfect pitch at the early stage too?
BT: Oh, always and my father and his three siblings and my sister and I— we both had perfect pitch. So, it’s obviously to some extent inherited but not always.
RF: Perfect pitch. That means you can hear a tone and tell me where it is on the scale.
BT: Yes. You play me a note and I’ll tell you what it was.
RF: Oh wow!
BT: Or you play me a chord and I’ll tell you what the notes are. It’s like looking at colours.
RF: So when you ding that glass you could hear the pitch of that?
BT: Yes, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
RF: It’s quite high.
BT: Well it helps playing the horn. You know you can miss pitch a note because you don’t know quite what to get and you can get the wrong note. If you’ve got perfect pitch you know exactly what you’re aiming for. I don’t know how anybody plays a brass instrument without having perfect pitch. But they do—most people manage very well indeed.
RF: One of the lovely things, I was very lucky to have a music theory teacher—when you have music theory—music’s sort of like a grid isn’t it, in your head, it’s kind of a grid and things fall into place and it all looks like a pattern after awhile like a chessboard or something like that. I don’t know. Is that how you see it Barry?
BT: I think instinctively and if you think of the music of Bach, people think ‘oh well you know hundreds of years ago’. What he wrote was extremely mathematical and was able to write music that you could turn the music upside down and play it and it was the same—palindromes, upside down, fugues, complicated things, extremely mathematical process not only the sounds but the construction of music tends to be mathematical too.
RF: Is the story of the 20th century getting that grid or chessboard and bending it round and twisting it so it makes it a bit weird?
BT: All sorts of things you can do now electronically, yes. I’d like to be a composer because all sorts of things I want to do but I’m not a composer. I would be writing things in quarter tones and half tones and modulations that you’re not perceiving. I think there’s a long way to go. Many composers are writing up a blind alley, writing music that all tends to sound the same. I think there’s much more we can do now because of electronics. Before it was complicated—they had quarter tone pianos and things like that—it just sounded like it was out of tune.
RF: Indonesians have been using quarter tone music for centuries haven’t they?
BT: Microtones and also in the Arabian countries they use not the tones we hear at all.
RF: And different feelings come out of that too, when you hear that music—gamalan music and the like, it’s beautiful.
BT: Yes, our ears are capable of analysing that, anybody can but it’s the environment in which you grow.
RF: In Western music we know, in music theory you learn, or anyone or plays live music or a guitar, will know that three notes will make up a chord—you know the first, third and the fifth will make up the chord. When Bulgarian voice music came along, when Bulgarian singing came along there was singing of an interval of a major second which is just a tone apart. And if you sing it well enough and strongly enough with enough faith that can sound like a harmony too.
BT: Yes, in a brass instrument you can play one note and sing another note and if they’re complementary vibrations you’ll get a third, fourth, and sometimes a fifth note—you can get a whole chord. That goes back quite a long way. It’s not a modern effect at all. But you can do these things.
RF: It’s one reason why music is profoundly weird I think too.
BT: And if you sing too close to the note that you’re playing you don’t get a resonance of another note you get this bublublublub—the vibrations are actually fighting each other.
RF: And that’s where you get the dissonance from, isn’t it? That’s the sound.
RF: Just going back to your start in music. Your father was a musical man, it was a musical family. What did he play, what was his instrument, Barry?
BT: Well he started as a pianist and 1920s, 1930s you didn’t make much money playing the piano so he played in an orchestra before the talkies because the first part of the show was a show with orchestras and singers and all that sort of thing. They had proper orchestras.
RF: What, at the movies?
BT: Well in the silent movies. Then the talkies came in and they fired all the orchestras because they could put on movies on all the time because it was cheaper. But they retained the organ. The Mighty Wurlitzer, so daddy started to play the Mighty Wurlitzer. That’s where I learnt all the pop songs.
RF: So tell me the story of how you came to the French horn then because you clearly were a child of great musical aptitude—you read the dots, you could hear the notes. So why weren’t you a pianist or an organist like your Dad?
BT: I was too clumsy. I learnt the piano and I learnt the organ which I found quite frightening because it makes an awful lot of noise even if you play the wrong note just a little bit it makes a big noise. And I tried to play the violin because my sister played the violin but I didn’t have the aptitude. I never dreamt I’d be a musician.
RF: Oh, really, why, why?
BT: I couldn’t play anything.
RF: Was that disheartening?
BT: No. It never occurred to me it be otherwise and then my sister was in a coffee lounge in Sydney with the first oboe and the second horn of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And the first oboe’s name was Mackerras, Charles Mackerras. In those days it was Charlie, of course, you know. And somehow the subject of me came up and he said ‘Well look, musically he must be able to play something’ and the second horn player said ‘Well would he like to try the horn? I’ll give him some lessons and lend him an instrument’. And I picked up the horn and found I could play it.
RF: Do you remember making your first noise on the French horn?
BT: Yes it was the C, concert C, an octave below middle C.
RF: And how did it sound to your ears?
BT: Well that wasn’t the note I was aiming for. [Not] that sound, I was aiming for THAT sound so I missed my first note which I suppose is appropriate for a horn player.
RF: And what delighted you about it then? Why did you stick with it?
BT: I think I was initially fascinated by the fact that, you could get a sound out of a piece of pipe and nothing in it. I was actually making the sound myself.
RF: I wonder if there’s something about being able to hold it in your arm? Because you grasp, you embrace it don’t you?
BT: That’s it. Sometimes you want to throw it on the floor but that’s different.
RF: But of course to start playing something like the French horn or any brass instrument you have to develop those facial muscles. Your facial muscles must be strong enough to lift a car by now.
BT: Oh, I did that all the time. Yes, you do get strong and that’s one of the problems of playing a brass instrument you still have to practise all the time to keep up the muscles. Like a ballet dancer does, they have to do basic, rudimentary rather boring exercises like weightlifting and that sort of thing.
RF: So if you don’t practise then you’ve got what two weeks or so of agony, of real pain?
BT: Well the muscles get weak and you don’t have the endurance you expect.
RF: You must have had a gift for it though and was that apparent early on Barry?
BT: Oh, I think so, yeah. I could read music, so playing the horn seemed to me easy. It was only one note at a time and most of it within the five lines.
RF: How old were you when you joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra then?
BT: Illegal now I think. You’re not allowed to employ people at fifteen.
RF: And then you were off. You were off pretty much very quickly after that.
BT: I was terribly excited, yes.
RF: From there to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and then it was time to leave Australia.
BT: Well to some extent it’s the same now but certainly was then. Australia was isolated from the rest of the world and I have to say that Eugene Goossens, who was the conductor then, encouraged us to go abroad. He thought that was good for us because we’d come back refreshed and with more knowledge. And so I got on a boat, went to England.
RF: I think that’s also true today but there’s not the sting of accusation about it these days really like it perhaps was then. There was a bit of that then, wasn’t there—‘Why are you leaving Australia?’.
BT: No, I think it was sort of expected. You HAD to go abroad but it’s a pity. But well people still do. But I can understand why. That’s why I went because well frankly you go to a place like London and there’s five symphony orchestras, two opera companies, apart from all the theatre and museums. There’s several concerts a day to choose from.
RF: You got the boat I suppose then as it was in those days?
BT: Yes, I got on a boat.
RF: The 1950s.
BT: It was the day that Comic Court won the Melbourne Cup—you immediately know when that was don’t you?
RF: 1950 something perhaps? Something like that.
BT: Something like that.
RF: Did you have a position waiting for you in England when you got there? Or did you just rock up?
BT: All I had was the fare back in case everything went wrong.
RF: A young man in London, an impressionable young man, with the French horn tucked under your arm. And no work. So what did you do, you went knocking on doors?
BT: I wrote letters and knocked on doors and got a few gigs and then I got a summer job in a place called Buxton and I played there for three or four months and while I was there I got a job with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester and I stayed there for two years and I was writing all over the place and I got a job in Scotland in Glasgow and I stayed there for a year writing all over the place and I got a job in Bournemouth and that was important. It was the first position I had as first horn and while I was there if found the London Symphony Orchestra was needing a first horn and I wrote to them and did an audition and that’s how I got to London.
RF: And there you were, first horn with the London Symphony Orchestra. You’d really arrived then Barry, surely? That must have been very pleasing.
BT: It was pleasing. It was also a bit frightening. I was really in the big smoke and I’d thought in the previous year, it’s a terrible climate, I think I’ll go back to Australia unless I can get a job in the big smoke. And if I hadn’t got the London Symphony job I’d probably be back in Australia.
RF: And there you are you’ve got this big job and a very large responsibility then as first horn in the London Symphony Orchestra—still in your 20s Barry?
BT: Yes I was.
RF: Barry Tuckwell is my guest in conversation. One of the world’s great French horn players and a conductor as well. And we’ll be hearing a little bit of his music today and hearing his story and we’ll pick it up again after the headlines, his performances in London and his time in the United States as a French horn player there where he steered the orchestra through a very difficult time—more in just a moment after ABC news headlines with Barry Tuckwell, French horn player. ABC LOCAL radio—it’s 28 minutes to midday.
RF: Today my guest is Barry Tuckwell, one of the world’s great French horn players and conductors, a man known as the greatest French horn player in our time now back in Australia and still performing after many, many years. Before the headlines we were talking about you joining the London Symphony Orchestra, Barry. 1950s there you are a man in your 20s you’re the first horn player. Now that’s an orchestra that’s run by the players themselves. How does that work?
BT: It’s called a cooperative orchestra which means we fought like fiends against each other. It’s a private limited company which was formed in 1904 by a bunch of musicians—three of them are horn players as a matter of fact. The other three orchestras in London are now also private companies run by the players.
I don’t think it could happen anywhere else but it works in London and you have a board of directors but you could only be on the board if you’re an actual playing member of the orchestra. I had to buy stock in the company but you didn’t get any dividends because we lost money every year.
RF: And you became Chair.
RF: You became Chair of the Board of London…
BT: I was Chairman of the Board. Chairman of the Board.
RF: You looked faintly ‘Blofeld-ish’ when you said that then!!
BT: I found it really quite interesting. It was like sitting on a volcano because you get quite emotional. But it was very political, musically political and really very, very interesting.
RF: You had to steer it through some difficult times financially, Barry?
BT: Oh, it was always difficult financially, trying to get money and well, when I joined the orchestra it wasn’t by any means at the top of the league table and it was quite exciting being part of an orchestra that was improving itself. We had to get better: we were competing with The Philharmonia Orchestra which at that time was conducted by Karajan, the Royal Philharmonic which at that time was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham so they had a sort of aura of greatness which we were aspiring to and I’m glad to say the orchestra’s been very successful since I left.
RF: So that gave you some discipline. How bad did it get? Did it look like you were going to fold at some point?
BT: No. Because, I think it has happened. After I left they went into some quite serious financial problems and the players just played for less money.
RF: 1968 you left the orchestra, why? Why did you leave, that very—I don’t know if you’d call it that—‘comfortable sinecure’ would you? But a good place to be.
BT: I’d been there 13 years and I was getting more and more solo work much of which I had to not do because I had obligations with the orchestra so I thought ‘I think I can make a career of not playing full time with the orchestra but surviving on free lance music in London’. There’s a lot of freelance music, it’s like Los Angeles, a lot of film music, television music, pop music, recordings and things like that but it didn’t work out that way. I got so many solo engagements that I didn’t end up playing in the studios all the time. But that was why I left. So that I had more freedom to play as soloist.
RF: Tell me about the feeling of being a soloist with a symphony orchestra. I always wonder what that must be like to be performing with this, being buoyed up by this swelling music behind you and around you while you’re being carried on top of that. Is that what it feels like?
BT: Well, it’s quite a different experience from playing in the orchestra where you’re playing in harness. You’re part of a team. If you’re playing as a soloist you’re able to give your own interpretation not somebody else’s interpretation.
RF: Yes, I just wonder what that sense of power that you might feel from that though. Do you feel—I hate to use that word but ‘empowered’ by the music…
BT: Well it’s more responsibility. You’re playing on your own much more so it’s riskier. I don’t know about power. You’re more vulnerable.
RF: The composer Oliver Knussen wrote a horn concerto for you to perform—how did that come about?
BT: Well, I knew his father very well—possibly the greatest double bass player of the 20th century—Stuart Knussen and that was when I was with the Scottish National Orchestra and I visited Stuart and his family a lot and there was this little boy crawling around able to recognise 78 records and sing what was on them just by looking at them and they all look the same. Obviously there was a genius there somewhere and now Ollie is about two feet taller than me and three feet wider but I’m still Uncle Barry and one day I was giving a concert. I was in Edinburgh actually and Ollie was conducting and we were having dinner, a glass of wine and he said diffidently ‘You know I’ve got this commission from the Suntory Foundation and I have to write a piece. Would you’ (hesitantly sort of stammering and stuttering) ‘mind, could I write you a piece?’ I said ‘Ollie I’ve been wanting to ask you for years but I didn’t have the courage.’ I wanted him to write a piece and he wanted to write me a piece and so it’s a very personal, personal work and it has all sorts of codes in it—his father appears in it and it’s all sort of ...
RF: How, what do you mean? I’m interested in this. What codes are in this song?
BT: Well, there are some chords—that are actually straight chords from a Strauss opera and it’s ominous and then the bassoon start playing this extraordinary music and it’s his father sitting in the orchestra with his Lancashire accent ‘You know I don’t like this modern music’ and he’s muttering away which he used to do. All sorts of things like that, just sort of... but it’s music but if you know that, it makes it more amusing but that’s not necessary to know that to enjoy the piece. And I remember playing this in Boston and people, they had come as my guest, who really didn’t go to concerts and said ‘Oh what beautiful sounds…what lovely sounding music’ and that is very much a feature of Ollie’s music and this concerto in particular. It sounds wonderful.
RF: It does and it couldn’t be more different from Mozart either could it? It’s lush and kind of fabulous, here it is. This is the horn concerto written by Oliver Knussen for my guest today Barry Tuckwell.…
RF: And that’s the horn concerto by Oliver Knussen and that’s call Fantastica—that movement? Is that called Fantastica Barry—have I got that right?
BT: It might well be. I don’t know. Was it in… It didn’t stop and start like a lot of concertos. So it was all joined on.
RF: It’s beautiful. Sounds great. Sounds like fun to play too.
BT: I was very touched that he wrote it for me.
RF: Is it rare to get a work that is as challenging and as fresh as that?
BT: It was demanding.
RF: You took up conducting as well Barry.
BT: Oh, well I think every musician does something in the conducting Realm, even if it’s just with a group of students so everybody does that and mine sort of developed. When I say I enjoyed it, it’s another set of responsibilities because if you play an instrument you’re arguably in charge of what you do—if you want to play louder, you play louder. If you want to go faster, you go faster but if you’re conducting you don’t make any sound and if they’re not looking and they’re not interested they don’t do what you want them to do.
RF: Does it feel like an instrument after a while? Does it feel like you’re sort of playing the French horn, you’re playing the orchestra?
BT: To a great extent, yes. I always felt it was a great privilege to be guiding, for example a Brahms symphony.
RF: To be guiding it? ‘Guiding’ that’s an interesting word. ‘Guiding’ it.
BT: Well you’re not playing you’re trying to make other people do what you want and if they don’t like you they don’t do it. I know, I’ve played in an orchestra and if you don’t like the conductor you can make life hell for the conductor—‘we have our ways’. [General laughter]
RF: French horn player Barry Tuckwell is my guest this morning in conversation. You moved to America after awhile to the United States. What opportunity was waiting there for you Barry?
BT: Well, I’d been going there for many, many years. And in fact spending months during the year there and then I decided I wanted to go. I was conducting Maryland Symphony Orchestra which in fact I helped to found. I mean I didn’t raise the money, but I got the musicians together. I was the founding music director and it seemed like a logical thing for me to do. I was working more there than anywhere else.
RF: What did they say ‘Come to Maryland and build and orchestra for us’.
BT: Yes, so I went and got my Green Card. It’s quite difficult to get your Green Card but finger prints, Interpol—they look into you, see if you.. That was pre-terrorist times too.
RF: An obstreperous French horn player…
BT: And you’re asked questions like: ‘Have you ever tried to over throw the Government and I thought well ‘if I had I wasn’t going to tell you’. ‘Have you ever been in the Communist Party’—I thought well if I was I wouldn’t tell you. You, know, they ask all these standard questions.
RF: They ask you if you’re a Nazi War Criminal too don’t they?
BT: Yes, yes, well…
RF: As if you’re going to say. ‘Er, you got me. Yeah, all right.’
BT: So I lived there for many years. I enjoyed it.
RF: Building an orchestra from the ground up, that mustn’t be an easy thing to do. You must be going around…Where did you find the musicians?
BT: Well this was in a town called Hagerstown in Maryland which is only an hour from Washington DC and only an hour from Baltimore where there’s a great pool of freelance musicians so that wasn’t the problem. There were many musicians available. It was a professional orchestra but not a full-time orchestra.
RF: When did you know it was the moment to retire?
BT: Oh about a year or so before I actually gave my last concert. I realised I didn’t have the endurance and stamina to, for example the Strauss second concerto is rather demanding and I thought for a year or so ‘Why is this worrying me a little bit more than it should’. And then I thought ‘Because you’re having a physical problem’. You’re getting a little bit too tired towards the end. And I thought: ‘Quit, before everybody else finds out.’
RF: How old were you by then Barry?
BT: Mid 60s, so I actually retired when I was 65. Which is longer than most brass players last.
RF: So having made that decision, you wanted to get out at the top? The absolute top of …
BT: Well, I wasn’t happy playing and when I decided to quit I got happy. ‘Oh maybe I should hang on but that’s the time to stop when you think ‘Oh, I’ll hang a little bit longer’. You know, you get ego and it’s not a good way to be playing, hanging on.
RF: So you went on a world tour?
BT: No, I just completed the engagements I had. It takes…you’re booked two years ahead.
RF: So you finished the engagements you had.
BT: I stopped accepting engagements.
RF: What happened on your last performance?
BT: Well that concerto you played earlier, the Mozart—there was I think four concerts with Baltimore Symphony and playing that Knussen concerto and Mozart 3 [Mozart’s third Horn Concerto] coincidentally and a colleague of mine said ‘Oh I’m coming to the concert’. And I said ‘Which concert are you going to?’ And he said ‘Oh going to the last one of course. I want to hear your last note.’ And that finishes Yadada-dadada dump bump bump and as I was going dadada-dadada dump, I remembered that he wanted to hear my last note so I left it out. All the horn players thought that was very funny so it was premeditated by about a quarter of a second.
RF: In doing that you denied your friend closure? ‘Closure’, that American word ‘closure’—you can get closure.
BT: Yes. I haven’t had closure yet. No, in fact I was playing last weekend in Port Fairy Festival in Victoria.
RF: He must have noticed.
BT: Oh yes, all the horn players—of course they could tell but I think I actually took the instrument away. Don’t visually look down my friend.
RF: Oh you looked down while you were doing it. There’s something in that—I was wondering if you were keeping your options open too Barry
BT: Well I didn’t play for five years, after I quit. I didn’t play.
RF: For five whole years?
BT: And then the first horn in the Baltimore symphony said ‘Oh look we’ve got this tour in Europe next week and the fourth horn has busted his lip in this car accident, can you come with us’ and I said ‘David I haven’t played for five years, there’s no way I could play in the orchestra but thanks anyway’. And in conversation he said ‘Well if we’ve got any extra horns needed would you like to play with the orchestra?’ And I said ‘Oh I don’t think so and I went back home and I picked up the horn to see if it still worked and I found that I could play and I had to work a bit and I actually did some concerts as an extra horn with the Baltimore Symphony and you know I enjoyed being back in harness enormously. I wasn’t playing first horn or anything. I was way down in the section but it was quite a thrill.
RF: So no pressure then in other words. You weren’t first horn, you were further back in the orchestra.
RF: There’s wisdom in that isn’t there Barry?. I wonder if that’s how to retire gracefully. It’s not to give up; it’s just to check your ego a bit and modestly step back a bit.
BT: Well I realised then that I’d missed playing. I’d missed trying to get things right, working at something, technical or musical and just not playing at all was a big void in my life.
RF: Had you been unhappy in that five year period? I mean this was something you’d done all your life what was it like to…
BT: Well I got divorced for the third time!
RF: That probably did no good to your well being to you I’m sure!! For the third time?
BT: Yes and then I had to start playing again. Because I didn’t have any money left.
RF: Classical musicians, no different from rock musicians in that sense? Hollywood marriages do you, is that right?
BT: Well I do think that being a performing musician does affect your domestic life enormously.
RF: You’re never at home.
BT: You’re never at home and what’s your priority? The family or your art, or your work? And it’s a very difficult thing to reconcile.
RF: So you had been unhappy for that five year period then, sitting at home going through a marriage break up, not playing the horn?
BT: Yes, playing lawyers and yes I realised I had to buy my lawyer’s wife another BMW.
RF: So back in harness again anyway, whether you like it or not. Yeah, there’s something nice about showing up for work too, just showing up, showing up for work, doing a job getting into the routine.
BT: Having to do something, yes, rather than saying ‘Oh I can get up at 11 o’clock today rather than 7’.
RF: And you moved back to Australia then?
RF: Why the move, why was it time to move?
BT: Well, I’ve always been moving West I think from Australia to London which is a little bit west and then from London to the United States and then West—full circle.
RF: You’ll be in India in a couple of years, won’t you? I suppose. Was it a good move for you to come back to Australia for you?
BT: Well, it’s another set of problems. Wherever you go there’s something that doesn’t work.
RF: That’ll be the new Australian tourist slogan—‘Ah, Australia another set of problems’.
BT: I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense but there’s always something wrong with wherever you go.
RF: And where do you live these days?
BT: I live an hour north of Melbourne amongst the kangaroos.
RF: In the countryside.
RF: You’re looking for peace these days then Barry?
BT: Yes, I live in a town that once had 25 hotels in it and 15,000 people living there. It was the beginning of the gold rush—right where I live and now there are maybe 120 people living there and a post office and petrol station.
RF: And for a man who retired some years ago you’ve got quite a busy schedule these days as a horn player. Where are you playing these days?
BT: Well, I played last Sunday at the Port Fairy Festival with a group of musicians—Tony Gould playing the piano, Graham Lyall was playing saxophone and David Jones was playing the drums and Ben Robertson was playing the double bass.
BT: Sort of. They jazzed it. I just played melodies. That was fun.
RF: You played with Ashkenazy at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra recently, how was that?
BT: Yes. Well Ben Jacks, first horn, asked me to go and play sixth horn in this piece by Rachmaninov and I said ‘Yeah that would be fun’. But he said ‘We’re not telling Ashkenazy.’ So I went there for the rehearsal and I was hiding behind Ben and he went to Ashkenazy and said ‘Look we’ve had terrible problems getting an extra horn for this—this is the only guy we could find’. Of course, Ashkenazy and I had made records together, colleagues knew who I was but he didn’t expect me to be the last resort. And after the performance he bowed to the audience you know and as he walked off the platform he walked into the orchestra and shook hands with the sixth horn. I don’t think people knew what was going on.
RF: How lovely, that’s so nice. Barry Humphries commissioned a piece for you. Is he a long term friend or a distant admirer of your work?
BT: We’ve know each other many, many years and he said ‘Oh I want to commission a piece and he decided upon this guy called Jean Michel Damase and I gave the first performance of it in the Festival hall. He wasn’t able to go there: he was doing a Dame Edna somewhere else. But somebody came on with a big bunch of gladioli. A few people understood the significance of the gladies. But and he wrote this beautiful piece for me, he commissioned this beautiful piece for me.
RF: And I’ll play some of it in just a moment too. You’re still as busy as ever—you’re part of the Barry Tuckwell Institute which is a good thing, given that it is named after you. Barry what is that? What is the Barry Tuckwell Institute?
BT: It’s just a group of us in the States who have what are sometimes called ‘horn camps’ and it’s developed into just a small number of people, 15 to 20 people, which is uneconomic—we don’t make any money out of it, divided between senior, amateurs and young students and it works like a dream. There’s no competition to play better it’s just to enjoy yourself. Music should be enjoyed not as boot camp.
RF: Hear, hear.
BT: And it works: we’re very happy but unfortunately we don’t make any money out of it.
RF: I want to play this piece that Barry Humphries commissioned by Damase Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestre—Rhapsodie for Horn and Orchestra. What can you tell me about this piece Barry before we start it Barry?
BT: It’s just lovely music and it’s in a collection of mostly French music on this wonderful disc with Ben Jacks playing the solo and it’s on a Melba disc and Melba Records devotes itself to promoting Australian artists and they just do beautiful productions. The artwork in itself is good on the cover but the engineering and the balance and the editing is absolutely superb and I think you’ll hear how beautiful the horn can sound when Ben Jacks is playing.
RF: And this is you conducting too isn’t it?
BT: Yeah, but you don’t hear me.
RF: No, well, kinda.
BT: I’m in charge.
RF: You’re in charge—the boss. Barry Tuckwell, it’s been lovely to have you in conversation today thank you so much.
BT: Thank you.
RF: Barry Tuckwell, French horn player and conductor and here he is conducting The Queensland Orchestra and this is by, a specially commissioned piece from Barry Humphries, by Jean Michel Damase Rhapsodie for Horn and Orchestra…
RF: And that’s a lovely bit of music by Jean Michel Damase, Rhapsodie for Horn and Orchestra conducted by Barry Tuckwell who is my guest in conversation today and that’s from the CD from the Melba label called Rhapsodie Fantasie Poème and that’s spelt in the French style P-o-è-m-e.