Chailly was born in Milan in a musical family. He studied composition with his father, Luciano Chailly. Chailly studied at the music conservatories in Perugia and Milan. He later studied conducting with Franco Ferrara. In his youth, Chailly also played the drums in a rhythm-and-blues band.
At age twenty, Chailly became assistant conductor to Claudio Abbado at La Scala. He made his conducting debut there in 1978 and was soon in great demand, making appearances at the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Salzburg Festival, and the Bavarian State Opera.
From 1982 to 1988, Chailly was chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and from 1983 to 1986 principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1986 to 1993, he led the Teatro Comunale of Bologna.
Chailly made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam in 1985. From 1988 to 2004, Chailly was chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (KCO), where he dedicated himself to performances of the standard symphonic tradition, notably Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, with which the orchestra made its name but also significantly broadened the repertoire with 20th century and contemporary music.  Among notable projects, Chailly led the 1995 Mahler Festival that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Mahler's first concert at the Concertgebouw. Chailly also conducted opera in Amsterdam, both at the KCO's annual Christmas Matinee concert as well as at De Nederlandse Opera, where he bade his operatic farewell to Amsterdam with a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo. One report stated that Chailly decided in 2002 to leave the KCO when at his last contract negotiations, the orchestra offered him an extension for two years rather than five years.
In 1986, Chailly conducted the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig for the first time, at the Salzburg Festival. In August 2005, he moved to Leipzig as the chief conductor of the Gewandhausorchester and general music director of Oper Leipzig. His initial Leipzig contract ran through 2010 and in 2008 was extended to 2015. He however resigned as GMD of the Opera in May 2008.  He has an exclusive recording contract with Decca, and his recordings with Decca include complete cycles of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. More recently, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly has led recordings of Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, and the Robert Schumann symphonies in the re-orchestrations by Gustav Mahler.
In the United States, Chailly has been guest conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and The Philadelphia Orchestra. He has recorded an album of Dmitri Shostakovich with The Philadelphia Orchestra, titled Shostakovich: The Dance Album and Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps with the Cleveland Orchestra. However, his appearances as a guest conductor have been very rare for a number of years.
Chailly has a daughter, Luana, by his first marriage to Anahi Carfi, and a stepson from his second marriage to Gabriella Terragni, his current wife.
- ^ John O'Mahony. "Maestro in the fast lane", The Guardian, 9 March 2002. Retrieved on 2007-08-13.
- ^ Mark Swed. "Bringing a Touch Of Latin Sunniness To Amsterdam", New York Times, 30 September 1990. Retrieved on 2007-10-14.
- ^ Jessica Duchen. "Dutch courage", The Guardian, 17 Sep 1999. Retrieved on 2007-08-13.
- ^ Alex Ross. "An Unpredictable Maestro Jars a Staid Repertory", New York Times, 25 February 1996. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- ^ Andrew Clements. "review of De Nederlandse Oper production of Don Carlo", The Guardian, 9 June 2004. Retrieved on 2007-08-13.
- ^ Hugh Canning. "On the upbeat", The Times, 15 Jan 2006. Retrieved on 2007-08-13.
- ^ John von Rhein, "Chailly a possibility for CSO? Wait and see". Chicago Tribune, 18 February 2007.
- ^ David Patrick Stearns, "After all that, he'll take Leipzig". Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 March 2007.
Lorin MaazelPrincipal Conductor, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
1982-1989 Succeeded by
Vladimir AshkenazyPreceded by
none Music Director, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
1999–2005 Succeeded by
Johann Adam Hiller (1781) · Johann Gottfried Schicht (1785) · Johann Philipp Christoph Schulz (1810) · Christian August Pohlenz (1827) · Felix Mendelssohn (1835) · Ferdinand Hiller (1843) · Felix Mendelssohn (1845) · Julius Rietz (1848) · Carl Reinecke (1860) · Arthur Nikisch (1895) · Wilhelm Furtwängler (1922) · Bruno Walter (1929) · Hermann Abendroth (1934) · Herbert Albert (1946) · Franz Konwitschny (1949) · Václav Neumann (1964) · Kurt Masur (1970) · Herbert Blomstedt (1998) · Riccardo Chailly (2005)