Born in Chester and educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, Boult attended Sir Henry Wood's Promenade concerts, although the greatest influence came from the charismatic Arthur Nikisch. Through Elgar’s friend Frank Schuster, Boult met the composer around 1905. Even as a student at Oxford, Boult already had an understanding of what he saw as the conductor’s role: to observe the composer's wishes, achieve clarity through emphasis on balance and structure, and to make the final effect without effort: these principles were his lifelong precepts. In 1912 he had the chance to observe Arthur Nikisch at the Leipzig Conservatory. Boult admired Nikisch above all because of his baton technique. He spoke very little because the stick did it for him. Indeed, Boult sometimes joked that conductors should be invisible so that their “antics” did not detract from the music!
He made his professional debut on 27 February 1914, with members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, and after war service in London, undertook a series of concerts featuring Holst’s “The Planets” (first performance given in private), Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony” (first performance of the revised version), and Elgar’s Symphony No. 2. Elgar wrote to him, saying that he felt sure the future of his music was safe in the young conductor’s hands. Boult was to remain a champion of twentieth century English music throughout his career. In 1919 Boult conducted a season of ballet for Diaghilev, and in 1920 started a conducting class at the Royal College of Music, the first such class in England. He was a mentor to many young conductors, most notably Vernon Handley. After six years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, he became Director of Music at the BBC and conductor of the BBC's Wireless Symphony Orchestra (now renamed the BBC Symphony Orchestra), in 1930, succeeding the BBC's first Director of Music, Percy Pitt.
During the 1930s the Orchestra introduced new and unfamiliar music, including Schoenberg’s Variations, Op.31, Berg's opera Wozzeck and the première of Vaughan Williams' abrasive Symphony No. 4 in F minor. He was knighted in 1937. During World War II the Orchestra was evacuated first to Bristol, and then to Bedford. Despite difficult conditions, Boult recorded Elgar's Second Symphony, Holst's The Planets and Vaughan Williams' Job, A Masque for Dancing. Having reached the statutory retirement age (60) in 1949, Boult was obliged to leave the Corporation, but was immediately appointed Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic in succession to Eduard van Beinum, remaining until 1957. Although he never held another chief conductorship, his career, especially in the recording, still had twenty years to run!
In 1966, he returned to EMI, recording a large repertoire of British music, Brahms, Wagner and Schubert. His recorded legacy is extensive, including two cycles of the Brahms Symphonies, the three Elgar oratorios (Gerontius, The Apostles & The Kingdom), at least four versions of the Enigma Variations, five versions of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony, three versions of the Violin Concerto, two versions of Handel’s Messiah, five versions of Holst’s The Planets, the four Schumann Symphonies, two cycles of the Vaughan Williams Symphonies, and Walton’s Belshazaar’s Feast & 1st Symphony.