Scherchen was born in Berlin. Originally a violist, he played among the violas of the Bluthner Orchestra of Berlin while still in his teens. He conducted in Riga from 1914 to 1916 and in Königsberg from 1928 to 1933, after which he left Germany in protest of the new Nazi regime and worked in Switzerland. Along with the philanthropist Werner Reinhart, Scherchen played a leading role in shaping the musical life of Winterthur for many years, with numerous premiere performances, the emphasis being placed on contemporary music. From 1922 to 1950, he was the principal conductor of the city orchestra of Winterthur (today known as Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur).
Making his debut with Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, he was a champion of 20th-century composers such as Richard Strauss, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Edgard Varèse, and actively promoted the work of younger contemporary composers including Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono and Leon Schidlowsky.
He was the teacher of Karel Ančerl, Egisto Macchi, Marc Bélanger, Françoys Bernier, Frieda Belinfante and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and contributed to the libretto of Hartmann's opera Simplicius Simplicissimus. He also premiered Hartmann's early work Miserae. Conductor Francis Travis was a pupil, then conducting assistant, for five years.
He is probably best known for his orchestral arrangement (and recording) of Bach's The Art of Fugue. His 1953 "Lehrbuch des Dirigierens" (Treatise on Conducting, ISBN 3-7957-2780-4) is a standard textbook. His recorded repertoire was extremely wide, ranging from Vivaldi to Reinhold Glière.
Like Vasily Safonov and (in later life) Leopold Stokowski, Scherchen commonly avoided the use of a baton. His technique when in this mode sometimes caused problems for players; an unidentified BBC Symphony Orchestra bassoonist told the singer Ian Wallace that interpreting Scherchen's minuscule hand movements was like trying to milk a flying gnat. According to Fritz Spiegl, Scherchen worked largely through verbal instructions to his players and his scores were peppered with reminders of what he needed to say at each critical point in the music.
However, Scherchen did not always dispense with the baton. The film of his rehearsal of his edition of Bach's The Art of Fugue with the CBC Toronto Chamber Orchestra shows him using a baton throughout, and very effectively.
His first wife – who was also his third wife – was Auguste Marie (Gustl) Jansen, whom he married on 17 June 1921. After a brief marriage to actress Gerda Müller from 1927–1929, he was again together with Gustl Jansen. In 1936, Scherchen married the Chinese composer Xiao Shuxian in Peking (Beijing). A daughter, Tona Scherchen, was born to them in 1938. She has also made a name for herself as a composer. The last of his five wives was the Zurich-based Romanian mathematics teacher Pia Andronescu, with whom he had 5 children: Myriam, David, Esther, Nathan and Alexandra.
One his sons was Karl Hermann "Wulff" Scherchen. Wulff met Benjamin Britten when they were thirteen (nearly fourteen) and twenty, respectively. Their romantic relationship did not begin until four years later. John Bridcut describes the passionate exchanges of letters between the increasingly-famous composer and the teenager in Britten's Children. Wulff's relationship with Britten is also the subject of Serenade for Tenor, Saxophone and Orchestra, a song cycle by Lyle Chan based on the romantic letters exchanged by the pair.
Until 2014, his daughter, Myriam Scherchen, co-ran the music label Tahra, which released officially authorized historical recordings of conductors such as Scherchen, Furtwängler, Mengelberg and others, generally drawn from primary recorded sources. Tahra ceased business after the death of the co-principal of the label, René Trémine.
The sister of Auguste Maria Jansen, Helen (Lene) Jansen, was married to the Hungarian cartographer Alexander Radó, who, under the alias ‘Dora', was a member of the european-wide resistance organization known as the "Rote Kapelle". When Radó was threatened in Switzerland by German security agents and faced eviction, Hermann Scherchen hid him in his apartment in Geneva.
- "Music does not have to be understood. It has to be listened to." ("Musik muss nicht verstanden werden. Sie muss gehört werden.")
Scherchen recorded an unusually wide range of repertoire, from the baroque to the contemporary. His Mahler recordings, made before Mahler became a part of the standard repertoire, were especially influential; so too were his recordings of Bach and Handel, which helped pave the way for the period-performance practice movement. Included as well were significant recordings of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Glière, Bartók, Schoenberg and many others.
In 1959, Hermann Scherchen recorded Handel's Messiah, with Pierrette Alarie, soprano, Nan Merriman, contralto, Leopold Simoneau, tenor & Richard Standen, bass. (Westminster XWL 3306, WST 306)
In 1960, Hermann Scherchen recorded works by Max Reger with alto Margarethe Bence and the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, including Eine Lustspielouvertüre (A Comedy Overture), Serenade for orchestra, Romantic Suite for orchestra, "An die Hoffnung", Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven and Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart.
In 1996, Tahra published the only commercially released recording of Malipiero's complete L'Orfeide. It was a remastered live recording of the 7 June 1966 performance at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, conducted by Scherchen only five days before his death. The cast included Magda Olivero and Renato Capecchi (Tah 190/191).
- "koelnkonzert.de". www.koelnkonzert.de. Archived from the original on 29 May 2007.
- "Leon Schidlowsky". schidlowsky.com.
- Boulez, Pierre; John Cage (1995). Jean-Jacques Nattiez (ed.). The Boulez-Cage Correspondence. Translated by Robert Samuels. Cambridge University Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-521-48558-4.
- Story told by Wallace during the BBC radio panel game My Music, 1993
- Spiegl, Fritz: Music Through the Looking Glass (London, 1984)
- Pauli, Hansjörg (21 May 1993). "Hermann Scherchen, 1891-1966". Kommissionsverlag Hug – via Google Books.
- Lucchesi, Joachim (1993). Das Verhör in der Oper – Google Books. ISBN 978-3-86163-052-4. Retrieved 27 July 2012.
- Professor, Department of History York University Michael Kater Distinguished Research (19 December 1996). "The Twisted Muse : Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich". Oxford University Press, USA – via Google Books.
- "Produktfamilie - BEETHOVEN Symphonies 1". www.deutschegrammophon.com (in German). 1 May 2020. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
- "Scherchen conducts Reger". classical.net. Archived from the original on 5 September 2012. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
- Manfriani, Franco, Mito e contemporaneità, Edizioni Pendragon, 2007, pp. 35–36. ISBN 88-8342-547-2
- J.S. Bach – Art of Fugue. Orchestre de Radio Beromunster. Hermann Scherchen, 1949. (History label – Soli Deo Gloria, 204583-308. Two CDs, 2000.)
- Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 5, Opus 67. Orchestra della Radio Televisione della Svizzera Italiana (RTSI), February 1965. (CD1 contains the full rehearsal version and CD2 the full concert version.) Ermitage ERM 126–2 ADD.