Masur was born in Brieg, Lower Silesia, Germany (now Brzeg in Poland), and studied piano, composition and conducting in Leipzig, Saxony. Masur was married three times. His first marriage ended in divorce. He and his second wife, Irmgard, had a daughter, Carolin. Irmgard Masur died in 1972 in a car accident in which Masur was severely injured. His marriage to his third wife, the former Tomoko Sakurai, produced a son, Ken-David, a classical singer and conductor.
Masur died at the age of 88 in Greenwich, Connecticut, from complications of Parkinson's disease. He is survived by his third wife and their son, as well as his daughters Angelika and Carolin, his two other sons, Michael and Matthias, and nine grandchildren.
At 10 until 16, he took piano lessons with Katharina Hartmann. In 1943 and 1944, he had piano lessons at the Landesmusikschule Breslau, until the schoolboy was forced to join the national militia "Volkssturm" late in 1944.
From 1946 until 1948, he studied conducting, composition and piano at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig. He left at 21, never finishing his studies, when offered a job as répétiteur at the Landestheater Halle an der Saale.
Masur conducted the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra for three years ending in 1958 and again from 1967 to 1972. He also worked with the Komische Oper of East Berlin. In 1970, he became Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, serving in that post until 1996. With that orchestra, he performed Beethoven's ninth symphony at the celebration of German reunification in 1990.
In 1991, Masur became music director of the New York Philharmonic (NYP). In that capacity, he directed the Philharmonic in a performance of Brahms's Deutsches Requiem in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. During his tenure, there were reports of tension between Masur and the NYP's Executive Director at the time, Deborah Borda, which eventually contributed to his contract not being renewed beyond 2002. In a television interview with Charlie Rose, Masur stated that regarding his leaving the NYP, "it was not my wish". Masur stood down as the NYP's music director in 2002 and was named its Music Director Emeritus, a new title created for him. The critical consensus was that Masur improved the playing of the orchestra over his tenure.
In 2000, Masur became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and held this position until 2007. In April 2002, Masur became music director of the Orchestre National de France (ONF) and served in this post until 2008, when he took the title of honorary music director of the ONF. On his 80th birthday, 18 July 2007, Masur conducted musicians from both orchestras at a Proms concert in London. Masur held the lifetime title of Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2012, following a series of cancellations of concert engagements, Masur disclosed on his website that he had Parkinson's Disease.
Although Masur spent most of his professional career in East Germany, he never joined the SED. In 1982, he received the National Prize of East Germany. His attitude to the regime began to change in 1989, after the arrest of a street musician in Leipzig. On 9 October 1989, he intervened in anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig in communist East Germany, negotiating an end to a confrontation that could have resulted in security forces attacking the protesters.
A professor at the Leipzig Academy of Music since 1975, Masur received numerous honors. In 1995, he received the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; in 1996 he received the Gold Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club; in 1997 he received the titles of Commander of the Legion of Honor from the French government, and New York City Cultural Ambassador from the City of New York; in April 1999 he received the Commander Cross of Merit of the Polish Republic; in March 2002, the President of Germany, Johannes Rau, awarded him the Cross with Star of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; in September 2007, the President of Germany, Horst Köhler, bestowed upon him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit with Star and Ribbon; in September 2008, he received the Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize in Bonn, Germany. Masur was also an Honorary Citizen of his hometown Brieg. In 2001, Kurt Masur became an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2010, he received the Leo Baeck Medal (Leo Baeck Institute) for his humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice. He received a Goldene Henne award in 2014 for his work in public policy.