Masur was born in Brieg, Lower Silesia, Germany (now Brzeg in Poland) and studied piano, composition and conducting in Leipzig, Saxony. Masur has been married three times. His second wife, with whom he had a daughter, died in 1972 in a car accident in which Masur was severely injured. He and his third wife, Tomoko Sakurai, have a son, Ken-David, a classical singer and conductor.
In 1991, Masur succeeded Zubin Mehta as music director of the New York Philharmonic (NYP). 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". The root of the problem was a fundamental discordance in status between the Americas and Germany regarding employed personalities of standing. In the former case, the hired beneficiary is expected "to report" to the benefactor, in the latter, he expects a free hand to execute his tasks as he feels best on account of his (to be) recognized experience. Masur stepped 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 is that Masur improved the playing of the orchestra compared to his more pliable and forbearing predecessor.
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, 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. His performances draw a wide range of reviews. Masur has appeared as a guest conductor with the world's leading orchestras, and holds the lifetime title of Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
In February, 2012 Masur was scheduled to conduct Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis' with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His participation was cancelled at the last minute, and John Oliver took his place. The cancellation was due to Maestro Masur's advancing Parkinson's Disease. In April 2012 he fell off the podium during a performance of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony in Paris and was rushed to hospital. He returned to share a concert with his son, Ken-David, at Tanglewood on July 22, 2012. In October 2012, he issued a health statement declaring that he had been suffering for some years with Parkinson's Disease but that he would continue to conduct orchestras so long as life and medical care permitted.
For years, Masur was loyal to the GDR leadership. 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 October 9, 1989, he intervened in anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig in communist East Germany. He negotiated 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 has received numerous honors: In 1995, he received the Cross of the Order of Merits 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 Merits of the Federal Republic of Germany; in September 2007, the President of Germany, Horst Köhler, bestowed upon him the Great Cross of the Legion of Honor with Star and Ribbon; in September 2008, he received the Furtwängler Prize in Bonn, Germany. Masur is 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.