He was born in Munich, and began his career at the opera house in Augsberg. In 1953 he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming the youngest person ever to do so, and when he debuted at the the Bayreuth Festspielhaus conducting Tristan und Isolde in 1957, he was the youngest conductor ever to appear there as well. From 1960 to 1970 he was principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and from 1971 to 1986 was music director of the Bavarian State Opera. Since 1993 he been principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
As a pianist, he has accompanied a number of prominent singers in lieder, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.