Born in Naples, he studied piano at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella under Vincenzo Vitale, graduating with distinction. He was subsequently awarded a diploma in Composition and Conducting from the Conservatory "Giuseppe Verdi," Milan, where he studied under the guidance of Bruno Bettinelli and Antonino Votto.
He first came to the attention of critics and the public in 1967, when he was unanimously awarded first place by the prestigious jury of the "Guido Cantelli" competition for conductors in Milan. The following year he was appointed principal conductor of the "Maggio Musicale Fiorentino," a position he maintained until 1980. In 1971 Muti was invited by Herbert von Karajan to conduct at the Salzburg Festival, the first of many occasions, which led in 2010 to a celebration of forty years of artistic collaboration with the Austrian festival. During the 1970s, he was chief conductor of the London Philharmonia (1972 to 1982) succeeding Otto Klemperer. From 1980 to 1992, he inherited the position of Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from Eugene Ormandy.
From 1986 to 2005, he was Music Director of the Teatro alla Scala and under his direction important projects were undertaken such as the Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy and the Wagner Ring Cycle. Alongside the classics of the repertoire, he brought many rarely performed and neglected works to light,including pieces from the eighteenth century Neapolitan school as well as operas by Gluck, Cherubini, Spontini and most recently performance of Poulenc's "Les dialogues des Carmélites" earned Muti the prestigious "Abbiati" prize from the critics. The long period spent as musical director of the La Scala organization culminated on December 7, 2004, in the triumphant re-opening of the restored La Scala with Antonio Salieri's "Europa riconosciuta".
Incredible his contribution to Verdi's repertoire, he conducted Ernani, Nabucco, I Vespri Siciliani, La Traviata, Attila, Don Carlos, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Macbeth, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Otello, Aida, Un ballo in Maschera, i Due Foscari, I Masnadieri.
His tenure as Music Director has been the longest at Teatro alla Scala.
Over the course of his extraordinary career, Riccardo Muti conducts most of the important orchestras in the world: from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Bayerischer Rundfunk, the New York Philharmonic to the Orchestre National de France, as well as, the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra to which he is linked by particularly close and important ties, and with which he has appeared at the Salzburg Festival since 1971. When Muti was invited to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert celebrating its 150 years,he was presented with the Golden Ring by the orchestra as a sign of special appreciation and affection, awarded to only a few select conductors. Four times he conducted the prestigious and extremely famous New Year's Concert in Vienna in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004.
In April 2003, the French national radio channel, France Musique, broadcast a "Journée Riccardo Muti" consisting of 14 hours of his operatic and symphonic recordings made with all the orchestras he has conducted throughout his career. On December 14 of the same year, he conducted the long-awaited opening concert of the newly renovated Opera House "La Fenice" in Venice.
In 2004, Muti founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, which is composed of young musicians selected by an international committee from some 600 instrumentalists from all over Italy.
Muti's recording activities span the classical symphonic and operatic repertories to contemporary works , which have received recognition in the form of many prizes.
Riccardo Muti's social and civic conscience as an artist is demonstrated by concerts in a number of places symbolising our troubled past and contemporary history, which he has conducted as part of "Le vie dell'Amicizia" (The Paths of Friendship) project, produced by the Ravenna Festival . These include Sarajevo (1997), Beirut (1998), Jerusalem (1999), Moscow (2000), Yerevan and Istanbul (2001), New York (2002), Cairo (2003), Damascus (2004), El Diem, Tunisia (2005), Meknes (2006),Concert for Lebanon (2007), Mazara del Vallo (2008), Sarajevo (2009), Trieste (2010), Nairobi (2011), Ravenna (2012), Mirandola (2013) and Redipuglia (2104) with the La Scala Philharmonic and Chorus, the Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the "Musicians of Europe United," a group made up of the top players of Europe's major orchestras and most recently with the Cherubini Youth Orchestra.
Innumerable honors have been bestowed on Riccardo Muti over the course of his career. He has been made a Cavaliere di Gran Croce of the Italian Republic and has received the Verdienstkreuz from Germany; recently he received the decoration of Officer of the Legion of Honor from French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a private ceremony held at Élysée Palace. He also was made an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in Britain. The Salzburg Mozarteum awarded him its silver medal for his contribution to Mozart's music, and in Vienna was elected an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle and the Wiener Staatsoper. Russian President Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship, and the State of Israel has honored him with the Wolf Prize for the arts. He has received honorary degrees from many universities in Italy and abroad.
He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the opening concert for the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in Salzburg Grosses Festspielhaus. In 2012 the continuous collaboration between Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic will reach 42 years.
In Salzburg for the Whitsun Festival with the Cherubini Orchestra he began in 2007 a five-year project dedicated to the rediscovery and the valorization of the musical heritage, operatic and sacred of the Neapolitan School of the 18th Century.
In September 2010 he became Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he was named 2010 Musician of the Year by Musical America. In February 2011 Riccardo Muti was awarded two Grammy Awards at the 53rd annual awards ceremony for his live recording of Verdi's Messa da Requiem with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. His recording won Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance. In March 2011, Riccardo Muti was selected as the recipient of the coveted Birgit Nilsson Prize, presented in a ceremony on October 13 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in the presence of H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf and H.M. Queen Silvia. In April 2011, he was honored at the sixth annual Opera News Awards, and in May 2011 he was awarded Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Prize for the Arts. The award was presented last autumn in Oviedo at a grand ceremony chaired by H.R.H. the Prince of Asturias. In July 2011 he was named an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic and in August 2011 he was named an honorary director for life at the Rome Opera.
In May 2012, he was awarded the highest Papal honor: the Knight of the Grand Cross First Class of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI.
In November 2012, he was awarded Vittorio De Sica Prize for his contributions to music and an Honorary Degree in arts and heritage from the IULM University in Milan.
In March 2013, he was awarded an honorary degree in Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies by the University of Naples, "L'Orientale".
In June 2013, he was bestowed an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from DePaul University's School of Music and Theatre in Chicago.