Gernsheim was born in Worms. He was given his first musical training at home under his mother's care, then starting from the age of seven under Worms' musical director, Louis Liebe, a former pupil of Louis Spohr. His father, a prominent Jewish physician, moved the family to Frankfurt am Main in the aftermath of the year of revolutions, 1848, where he studied with Edward Rosenhain, brother of Jakob Rosenhain. He made his first public appearance as a concert pianist in 1850 and toured for two seasons, then settled with his family in Leipzig, where he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles from 1852. He spent the years 1855–1860 in Paris, meeting Gioachino Rossini, Édouard Lalo and Camille Saint-Saëns.
His travels afterwards took him to Saarbrücken, where in 1861 he took the conductor post vacated by Hermann Levi; to Cologne, where in 1865 Ferdinand Hiller appointed him to the staff of the Conservatory (his pupils there included Engelbert Humperdinck and Carl Lachmund); he then served as musical director of the Philharmonic Society of Rotterdam, 1874-1890. In the latter year he became a teacher at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, and in 1897 moved there to teach at the Academy of Arts, where he was elected to the senate in 1897. In 1877 he married Helene Hernsheim from Karlsruhe.
Gernsheim was a prolific composer, especially of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, and songs. Some of his works tend to Jewish subject-matter, notably the Third Symphony on the legend of the Song of Miriam. His earlier works show the influence of Schumann, and from 1868, when he first became friendly with Brahms, a Brahmsian influence is very palpable. Gernsheim's four symphonies (the first of which was written before the publication of Brahms' First Symphony) are an interesting example of the reception of Brahmsian style by a sympathetic and talented contemporary. Gernsheim's last works, most notably his Zu einem Drama (1902), show him moving away from that into something more personal. He died in Berlin.
Due to his Jewish background, his work was banned in Nazi Germany, and his papers and a biography written by him on K. Holl were removed from music libraries.
Selected works (excerpted from worklist)
- Orchestral works
- Piano Concertos
- Piano Concerto in C minor, op. 16
- Violin Concertos
- Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, op. 42
- Violin Concerto no. 2 in F, op. 86
- Fantasy Piece for violin with orchestra, op. 33
- Cello Concertos
- Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 78 (fairly popular in the early 20th century with many mentions in the Neue Zeitschrift as evidence, and played on SWR2 radio on January 31, 2005 by cellist Alexander Hülshoff, the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, directed by Ari Rasilainen. Recorded and released by the British label Hyperion in its 'Romantic Cello Concerto' series, played by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, conducted by Hannu Lintu, with Alban Gerhardt as soloist).)
- Zu einem drama, op. 82 (given a radio recording by Klaus Arp and the SWR Radio Orch.)
- Divertimento, op. 53
- Chamber music
- String Quartets
- String Quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 25
- String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, op. 31, 1875 (recorded on Audite)
- String Quartet no. 3 in F major, op. 51, 1886
- String Quartet no. 4 in E minor, op. 66
- String Quartet no. 5 in A major, op. 83 (Republished recently by Walter Wollenweber-Verlag, pub. originally ca 1911.)
- Piano Quartets
- Piano Quartet no. 1 in E♭, op. 6
- Piano Quartet no. 2 in C minor, op. 20 (performed in 2003. Pub. ca. 1870.)
- Piano Quartet no. 3 in F major, op. 47, 1883
- Piano Quintets
- Piano Quintet no. 1 in D minor, op. 35
- Piano Quintet no. 2 in B minor, op. 63, pub. ca. 1897 (definitely by 1898 - see review )
- String Quintets
- String Quintet no. 1 in D major, op. 9
- String Quintet no. 2 in E♭ major, op. 89 (premiered in Feb. 1916 and mentioned in the Neue Zeitschrift that year. Two-cello quintet. Given its modern premiere in 2003 along with his string trio op. 74.)
- Violin sonatas
- Violin sonata no. 1 in C minor, op. 4, pub. ca. 1864
- Violin sonata no. 2 in C, op. 50, pub. ca. 1885
- Violin sonata no. 3 in F, op. 64, pub. ca. 1898
- Violin sonata no. 4 in G, op. 85
- Piano trios
- Piano trio no. 1 in F, op. 28
- Piano trio no. 2 in B, op. 37
- Two other piano trios, in manuscript (search at the Altenberg Trio site. #2 in B is in their repertoire.)
- Cello sonatas
- Piano sonata
- Piano sonata in F minor, op. 1
- Fantasy and Fugue for Organ, op. 76 
- Other chamber music
- Introduction and Allegro appassionato, op. 38 
- String Quartets
- Choral works and orchestral works
- Salamis, for men's chorus and orchestra op. 10 
- Nibelungen wiederfahrt, op. 73
- Nornen wiegenlied, op. 65
- Agrippina, op. 77
Of these works, the symphonies, the cello concerto, the first cello sonata, the piano trios, two of the piano quartets, the two piano quintets, the violin sonatas, and the second string quartet have to date been recorded.
- Pitt, Lavender. The Musical World at Google Books. 1 August 1874 issue. J. Novello. v.52, p.512.
- Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung at Google Books. Ser. 3 v. 17, 1882. p. 190 notice of Rotterdam early performance of Symphony no. 2.
-  at home.wanadoo.nl (dead link)
- Hyperion Records at www.hyperion-records.co.uk
- Willkommen bei Klassik Heute at www.klassik-heute.de
- Ursprach, Anton (27 October 1898). Musikalisches Wochenblatt 29 (44). E.W. Fritzsch. pp. 617–9. OCLC 297294425.
- Manuscript score at State Library, Berlin and at IMSLP. Not an arrangement of the contemporaneous cello concerto in the same key (Op.78) - very different movement structure, and ends in minor rather than major.
- This opus number differs from that under Gernsheim on List of compositions for cello and piano, which bases its information on Muller-Reuter's Lexicon , not the discography referred to in the external link (also on this concert-series description from 2003 in which that work among others was played. However, ultimately a score of the work should be sought to resolve the issue. Note that op. 87 is the opus no. given for the cello sonata no. 2 given in the worklist at the warmaisa.de link. The explanation of the difference - and confusion - is probably the existence of three, rather than two, Gernsheim cello sonatas, the last two both in E minor (but different works).
- "Dreilanderkatalog im Gateway Bayern OPAC". Retrieved 25 August 2007.
- "Release Page for Gernsheim Violin Sonatas and other Violin Works". Retrieved 2013-03-11.
- Friedrich Gernsheim’s String Quartet No. 2 , Piano Trio No.2 & Piano Quintet No.1 sound-bites with discussion of works
- Detailed biography and worklist on the page of an association for Jewish culture in his hometown (in German, cf. #2 there)
- Detailed biography, worklist and discography by François-Emmanuel de Wasseige on the French website musicologie.org (in French)
- Free scores by Friedrich Gernsheim at the International Music Score Library Project
- Koch, Dr. Hans-Oskar. Notes to the recording on Arte-Nova of the Complete Symphonies of Friedrich Gernsheim.
- Ringer, Alexander. Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916) and the Lost Generation, Music Judaica, 3.1, 5741/1980-1. pp. 1–13.
- Green, Janet M. and Josephine Thrall. The American History and Encyclopedia of Music 908, s.v. "Friedrich Gernsheim".