The German conductor (of of Hungarian ancestry), Christoph von Dohnányi, was born in Berlin to jurist Hans von Dohnanyi and Christine Bonhoeffer. His uncle on his mother's side was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian/ethicist. His grandfather was the pianist and composer Ernő Dohnányi. His father, uncle and other family members participated in the German Resistance movement against Nazism and were arrested and detained in several concentration camps before being executed in 1945, when Christoph was 15 years old. Dohnányi's older brother is Klaus von Dohnanyi, a German politician and former mayor of Hamburg. After World War II, Christoph studied law in Munich, but in 1948 he transferred to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München to study composition, piano and conducting. At the opera in Munich, he was a stage extra, coached singers, and was a house pianist. He received the Richard Strauss Prize from the city of Munich, and then went to Florida State University to study with his grandfather, Ernst von Dohnányi.
His first position as assistant was at the Frankfurt Opera, appointed by Georg Solti, where he also served as a ballet and opera coach. He was general musical director of the Lübeck Opera from 1957-1963, then Germany's youngest GMD. He also served as chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Kassel. He also served as Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. In 1968, he succeeded Georg Solti as General Music Director and later 'director' at the Frankfurt opera and served in both capacities until 1977. He took the positions of intendant and chief conductor with the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1977, and relinquished those posts in 1984. As director of the Frankfurt Opera and with his team including Gerard Mortier (Director of Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Salzburg Festival, Opera de Paris), Peter Mario Katona (Director of Casting at Royal Opera House Covent Garden) and Klaus Schultz (Director of Mannheim, Aachen, Gärtnerplatztheater in Munic), the balance in programming of traditional opera performance and innovative Musiktheater, promoting the idea of Regietheater, established Frankfurt opera as a leading house at that time. He continued this concept in Hamburg.
Christoph von Dohnányi is recognized as one of the world's pre-eminent orchestral and opera conductors. His enduring fame owes largely to a relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra that spanned two decades. He made his conducting debut with the orchestra in December 1981, and his appointment to serve as music director (commencing with the start of the 1984-1985 season) was announced the following year. At the time of Dohnányi's appointment, he was a relatively young unknown in the shadow of the famously autocratic George Szell, who had forged the orchestra into a world-class ensemble by the time of his death in 1970. Dohnányi's kinship with Szell both in terms of musical training and micro-managerial conducting style portended that his relationship with the orchestra would be a successful one. In Dohnányi's 18 year tenure at its helm, the Cleveland Orchestra was sometimes touted as the finest orchestra in the USA and among the finest in the world, pursuing an active touring and recording agenda. In spite of it all, Dohnányi was keenly aware of and bemused by the fact that their achievements were frequently overlooked: "We give a great concert. . .and George Szell gets a great review." Dohnányi was named the first ever "Music Director Laureate of the Cleveland Orchestra" upon his retirement in 2002. During his years as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Dohnányi led the orchestra in a thousand concerts, fifteen international tours, twenty-four premieres, and the recording of over one hundred works. Immediately upon the completion of his tenure there in 2002, Dohnányi made a great sweep of long awaited and triumphant guest appearances with orchestras in Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Christoph von Dohnányiís highly successful partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra began in 1994, when he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor and, from 1997 onwards as Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser. In addition to the subscription concerts at the South Bank Centre and in venues around England, recent seasons have seen Dohnányi and the orchestra giving a three-concert residency in Vienna's prestigious Musikverein, touring Germany and making a substantial West Coast tour of the USA, with dates at Walt Disney Hall, Davies Symphony Hall and at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Together they developed a successful collaboration with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, their many performances there having included productions of Straussís Arabella, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die schweigsame Frau, Arnold Schoenbergís Moses und Aron, Igor Stravinskyís Oedipus rex and Engelbert Humperdinckís Hänsel und Gretel. In concert, they also performed all the Johannes Brahms symphonies in 1994. In April 2007, Dohnányi was one of eight conductors of British orchestras to endorse the 10-year classical music outreach manifesto, "Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century", to increase the presence of classical music in the UK, including giving free entry to all British schoolchildren to a classical music concert. In 2008, he stepped down from the Philharmonia Orchestra principal conductorship and now holds the title with the orchestra of 'Honorary Conductor for Life'.
In September 2004, Christoph von Dohnányi returned to Hamburg, Germany where he maintained a residence for many years, to become Chief Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra. As well as giving concerts in major venues throughout Europe (including Lucerne, Cologne, Frankfurt, Bonn, Warsaw and Luxembourg) Dohnányi and the orchestra have toured in North America, South America and Japan. He is scheduled to conclude his NDR Symphony Orchestra tenure after the 2011-2012 season.
In addition to his principal posts, Christoph von Dohnányi has had guest engagements with the major opera houses and orchestras of Europe and North America. Highlights of recent seasons include a series of concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, where he led the four J. Brahms symphonies over a two-week period; weeks the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra; and his first appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra since he assumed the title of Music Director Laureate of that orchestra in 2002. Dohnányi also returned to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, and led performances of Fidelio at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In North America this season (2009-2010), Christoph von Dohnányi leads subscription concerts with Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Last season (2008-2009) he became Honorary Conductor for life of the Philharmonia Orchestra; this season (2009-2010) he leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in Madrid, Cardiff, in a J. Brahms symphony cycle at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, and at Londonís Royal Festival Hall.
Christoph von Dohnányi conducts frequently at the world's great opera houses, including Covent Garden, La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, Berlin, and Paris. He has been a frequent guest conductor with the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Festival, leading the world premieres of Henze's Die Bassariden and Cerha's Baal. Dohnányi returned to Salzburg in the summer of 2001 for a new production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, and in October 2001 he conducted Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten at Covent Garden. Dohnányi also appears with the Zürich Opera, where in recent years he conducted R. Strauss's Die Schweigsame Frau, a double bill of I. Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, and new productions of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera and Alban Berg's Wozzeck.
Christoph von Dohnányi is said to have recognized and promoted young conductors. Alan Gilbert, current Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was assistant conductor to Dohnányi from 1995 to 1997 with the Cleveland Orchestra. Jens Georg Bachmann, Music Director of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado, had been in the same position at the NDR Symphony Orchestra from 2007 to 2009.
Christoph von Dohnányi has made many critically acclaimed recordings for London/Decca with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Wiener Philharmoniker. With Wiener Philharmoniker, he recorded a variety of symphonic works and a number of operas, including L.v. Beethoven's Fidelio, A. Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, A. Schoenberg's Erwartung, R. Strauss' Salome, and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. With the Cleveland Orchestra, his large and varied discography includes concert performances and recordings of Wagner's Die Walküre and Das Rheingold, the complete symphonies of L.v. Beethoven, J. Brahms and Robert Schumann, symphonies by Bruckner, Dvorak, Gustav Mahler, W.A. Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, and among many others, works by B. Bartók, Berlioz, Charles Ives, Varèse and Anton Webern.
Christoph von Dohnányi has been married three times. His first wife was the German actress Renate Zillessen, and they had two children, Katja and Justus. His second wife was the German soprano Anja Silja, with whom he had three children: Julia, Benedikt and Olga. His third wife is Barbara Koller.