Born on 8 September in Berlin to the lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi and Christine Bonhoeffer (1903–1965), sister of the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Attends school in several German cities; takes final exams with his brother Klaus at the Rhabanus Maurus Gymnasium attached to the Archabbey of St. Ottilien in Upper Bavaria. In April 1943 Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are arrested by the Nazis, and executed on Hitler’s express instruction in April 1945.

Studies law for two years before entering the Musikhochschule in Munich to study piano, composition and conducting. Works freelance as a coach at the Bavarian State Opera. Receives Richard-Strauss-Preis of the city of Munich upon completing his studies at the Musikhochschule, which leads to his first public appearance as a conductor on 5 June 1951 in Munich.

Studies with his grandfather Ernst von Dohnányi at Florida State University and at the summer school of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tanglewood, MA.

Studies briefly in Heidelberg; in September 1953 becomes a repetiteur and conductor at the Frankfurt Opera; makes his first recordings of music for radio plays.

Marries actress Renate Zillessen (1931-1992); the couple have two children, Katja, a writer (b. 1958) and Justus, actor (b. 1960).

General Music Director in Lübeck; undertakes conducting engagements across Europe and makes his US debut in 1961 with the St. Louis Symphony.

General Music Director at the State Theater in Kassel.

Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne.

Begins artistic and personal relationship with the soprano Anja Silja (b. 1940). They have three children: Julia, a project-manager (b. 1974), Benedikt, sports management director (b. 1976) and Olga, an occupational therapist (b. 1977).

General Music Director of the Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt-am-Main; in 1972 appointed Opera Director of the Frankfurt Opera.

Intendant and Music Director at the Hamburg State Opera.

Music Director Designate of the Cleveland Orchestra in the interregnum after the departure of Lorin Maazel.

Sixth Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Becomes Music Director Laureate in 2002.

Begins professional and personal partnership with Barbara Koller (b. 1963), whom he marries in 2004.

Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London.

Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra: in 2008 becomes Honorary Conductor for Life.

Music Adviser and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestre de Paris.

Chief Conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg.

Awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Royal Academy of Music in London.