Born near Dresden in June 1910, Kempe studied the oboe and, at the age of 19, was named first oboe of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1933 he became a repetiteur at the Leipzig Opera and made his conducting debut three years later. After war service, he was named Chief Conductor of the Chemnitz Opera (1945-48), moving to the Weimar National Theatre (1948) and then to the Staatsoper Dresden (1949-52). Between 1952-54 he was at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. It was with the latter company that he made his auspicious debut at Covent Garden where in the following years he was a highly respected visitor. Kempe first conducted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1954 and between 1960-63 conducted the annual cycles of Wagner's Ring at the Bayreuth Festival. He was selected personally by Sir Thomas Beecham to be his successor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, a position he held until 1975. Concurrently he was Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and the Munich Philharmoniker. In 1975 he was appointed the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The first of Kempe's many recordings for EMI was in 1955: these include Smetana's The bartered bride, Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Wagner's Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg plus the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. Not to mention his many recordings of the music of Richard Strauss. He died in Zürich, Switzerland in May 1976.