Walter Braunfels was born on 19 December 1882 in Frankfurt am Main. He was the youngest child of the lawyer and writer Louis (Lazarus) Braunfels (1810–1883) and his second wife, Helene, née Spohr, his junior by 32 years.
After completing school education and musical training at the Dr. Hoch Conservatory – into which he was accepted as early as 1895 – he began in 1901 to study economics in Munich and Kiel. Deciding however to dedicate himself to music, he moved to Vienna for a year in 1902 to perfect his piano skills with Theodor Leschetitsky and to study music theory with Karl Nawratil.
From 1903 he lived in Munich where he studied composition with Ludwig Thuille. Here he met the conductor Felix Mottl who was to have the most profound formative influence on Braunfels’ development. From 1903 he worked as Mottl’s assistant at the National Theatre in Munich. From 1903 Braunfels also appeared regularly in public as a pianist. His first major success as a composer came in 1909 with the première of his Symphonic Variations op. 15 under Hermann Abendroth in Lübeck and his first opera, Prinzessin Brambilla, op 12 (after E. T. A. Hoffmann) under Max von Schillings in Stuttgart. In the same year he married Bertha von Hildebrand, the youngest daughter of the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand.
World War I was a turning point in Braunfels’ life – and not just from a musical point of view. He was conscripted in 1915 and saw combat duty in France, where he was wounded. Traumatised by the experiences at the front and grateful to have survived the inferno, the protestant Braunfels converted to Catholicism.
His opera Die Vögel (The Birds), after Aristophanes, premièred in 1920 by Bruno Walter in Munich’s National Theatre, was a sensational success and proved to be his musical breakthrough. Other works such as Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz), Te Deum, Don Gil von den Grünen Hosen (Don Gil of the Green Trousers), the Grosse Messe (Grand Mass) and Don Juan were performed by renowned conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer and Max von Schillings and became part of the repertoire of almost all German theatres and concert halls. They also achieved great international acclaim.
In 1923 Braunfels became a member of the Berlin Academy of the Arts and in 1925, together with Abendroth, he was appointed as founding director of the Cologne Academy of Music. With the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 Braunfels was listed as half-Jewish and all his works were banned. As a persona non grata he was required to withdraw from all public offices. The Reichsmusikkammer expressly prohibited him from undertaking any musical activities. As he did not feel able to emigrate, he moved with his family to Lake Constance near the border to Switzerland.
Among the works he wrote during his inner emigration between 1933 and 1945 are three operas: Die Verkündung (The Annunciation by Paul Claudel), Der Traum ein Leben (The Dream, a Life, after Grillparzer) and Jeanne d’Arc – Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna (Scenes from the Life of Saint Joan, based on documents from her trial), four cantatas, three string quartets and a quintet. In 1945, after the end of the war, Konrad Adenauer reinstated Walter Braunfels as director of the Cologne Academy of Music. During the years of reconstruction and after his retirement in 1950 he wrote numerous works including the Sinfonia Concertante op. 68, Sinfonia brevis op. 69, Hebridentänze (Dances of the Hebrides) op. 70 and Passionsspiel (Passion Play) op. 72.
Braunfels died on 19 March 1954 in Cologne.
After 1945 his works were scarcely able to compete against the more favoured serial music. His compositions, which display a stylistic individuality between late romanticism and classical modernism, have since the 1990s once more been performed with increasing frequency and international success.