Hellmuth Rilling was born in 1933 in Stuttgart, Germany. He studied at the State Music Academy of his native city and continued his organ study at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome. Concentrating on conducting, choral music, and the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach, he founded the Gächinger Kantorei in 1953–54 and its permanent instrumental partner, the Bach Collegium Stuttgart, in 1965. In 1957 he became music director at the Gedächtniskirche in Stuttgart, a position he still holds today.
After studying with Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1967, he became professor of choral conducting at the State Music Academy in Frankfurt, a post he held until 1985. He also conducted the Frankfurter Kantorei until 1981.
Rilling is director of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, which he founded in 1970. The Festival is one of the most expansive and critically acclaimed forums for the works of Johann Sebastian Bach's works. Rilling's success in Oregon led to invitations to undertake similar work at Indiana University, Temple University, St. Olaf, Baldwin-Wallace, and Westminster Choir Colleges, and the University of Iowa.
Rilling is the director of the International Bachakademie Stuttgart, which he founded in 1981. Together with the teachers and ensembles of this institution, he has conducted Bach academies all over the world, in such cities as Buenos Aires, Krakow, Prague, Moscow, Budapest, Santiago de Compostela (Spain), and Tokyo.
A believer in the power of music to cross political and ethnic boundaries, Rilling’s many honors include being the first German conductor to conduct the Israeli Philharmonic in that country. Rilling received the Theodor Heuss Prize for advancing reconciliation and international understanding.
Rilling has generated commissions for some of the twentieth century's leading composers, including Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt, Robert Levin, Osvaldo Golijov, and Tan Dun.
Rilling has recorded more than 100 albums on Vox, Nonesuch, Columbia Nippon, CBS, and Turnabout. He now records exclusively for Hänssler, for whom he has completed recording the complete works of J.S. Bach on 172 CDs, released in 2000 in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.