Christoph von Dohnányi gained renown as one of the world's most versatile conductors in the last decades of the twentieth century and beyond, earning particular distinction for his interpretations of Romantic music and that of the Second Viennese School. The grandson of the well-known Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960), Dohnányi studied the piano in his youth. Both his personal life and his musical education were disrupted by World War II; his father and his uncle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed by the Nazis for their complicity in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
After the war, Dohnányi studied law at the University of Munich and entered the Munich Musikhochschule in 1948, taking the institution's top prize in composition and conducting within a few years. He traveled to the United States to study music with his grandfather, who had emigrated to Florida in 1949 and was the composer-in-residence at Florida State University in Tallahassee. In a rite of passage for conductors of his generation, Dohnányi also made the pilgrimage to the Tanglewood Music Center to study conducting with Leonard Bernstein.
He returned to Germany and in 1952 assumed posts at the Frankfurt Opera, then under the leadership of Georg Solti. His career continued apace with posts as Generalmusikdirektor in Lübeck (1957-1963) and Kassel (1963-1969), chief conductor of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (1964-1969), director of the Frankfurt Opera (1968-1977), and Intendent and Principal Conductor of the Hamburg State Opera (1978-1984). Highlights of his career to that point include conducting the world premieres of two of Henze's operas, Der Junge Lord in 1965 and Die Bassariden in 1966. A full schedule of guest engagements included concerts with the great orchestras of Europe and operas at Covent Garden, La Scala, the Metropolitan in New York, and elsewhere.
In 1984 he assumed his most influential post, as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. With that ensemble, Dohnányi produced a diverse, well-received body of recordings ranging from the music of Mozart and Schubert to that of Ives, Varése, and Lutoslawski. He further honed and maintained the orchestra's razor-sharp sense of ensemble and infused its overall sound with a distinctive warmth. He was succeeded as music director by Franz Welser-Möst in 2002.
In 1997 Dohnányi became principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He has received numerous honors, including the commander's Cross of the Republic of Austria, Germany's Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit, and the Bartók Prize of Hungary. In 2004 Dohnányi became chief conductor of the NDR Symphony in Hamburg, Germany.