Hans Rosbaud was one of the best known conductors in Europe, particularly for his pioneering performances of twentieth century music.
He studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where his piano instructor was Alfred Hoehn and his composition instructor Bernhard Sekles. He chose an academic career, becoming director of the State Music School (Städtische Musikschule) in Mainz. There he also frequently conducted the Municipal Orchestra. During his first year there he conducted music by Paul Hindemith, then one of the most rapidly rising young stars in the German music, and a teacher of his for three years, and scheduled other new music.
In 1928 he took the position of Musical Director of Frankfurt Radio, a position he held until 1938; simultaneously he was First Kapellmeister of Frankfurt's Museumgesellschaft concerts. In both positions he made Frankfurt one of the most exciting venues for new music. He frequently scheduled music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky, and others. He presented the premiere performances of Schoenberg's Four Songs with Orchestra, Op. 22 (1932),and Bartók's Second Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist (1932). Nazi rule forced him to curtail performances of Jewish composers and those labeled as "cultural Bolsheviks" after 1933. He also shifted to less prominent positions as Generalmusikdirektor in Münster (1937-1941) and in Strasbourg (1941-1944). After the war, he again returned to conducting in a major city, as Principal Conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (1945 - 1948).
But his preference was for radio, where he could schedule more innovative concerts and reach a wide audience with modern music. Therefore in 1948 he accepted the position as Chief Conductor of the South-West German Radio Orchestra in Baden-Baden. German radio was based on strong regional companies whose programs were also carried elsewhere in the country. Baden-Baden, with a history as one of the most liberal corners of German and a strong interest in arts, was ideal for Rosbaud's purposes. Furthermore, the identification by the Nazis of their opposition to certain kinds of music gave that music a strong prestige and support among, particularly among the younger audience. These factors, and a sense of a need to learn about music currents that had passed Germany by when Hitler and Goebbels transformed the country into a cultural backwater, combined to create a strong audience for Rosbaud's programming.
He made the provincial orchestra into a strong and precise ensemble, with a lean, anti-Romantic sound. Success on radio led immediately to demand for phonograph recordings. He participated in the first Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1948 and remained associated with it, often appeared in the Donaueschingen Festival, Europe's primary avant-garde music festival (where he supported the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, and their circle), and performed regularly at the annual festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music. He gave the first performances (concert and staged) of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. In 1957 he added the position of Music Director of the Zurich Tönhalle Orchestra.
His performances were highly objective, clear, and intellectual, frequently seeming now to lack warmth.