Michael was born in 1948, the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten.
As a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, singing naturally played an important part in his early education.
He studied composition, singing, and piano at the Royal Academy of Music but it was not until his late twenties, when he went to study with Richard Rodney Bennett, that Berkeley began to concentrate exclusively on composing. In 1977 he was awarded the Guinness Prize for Composition; two years later he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Since then Michael's music has been played all over the globe and by some of the world's finest musicians.
Major works of the 1980s include Gregorian Variations conducted in England and America by André Previn; the 1982 oratorio Or Shall We Die? to a text specially written by Ian McEwan, and made into a remarkable film for Channel 4 by Richard Eyre; For the Savage Messiah; Songs of Awakening Love, composed for Heather Harper and performed at the 1988 Proms; the Organ Concerto; Keening for the saxophonist John Harle; Fierce Tears I and II for the oboist Nicholas Daniel; the Quartet Study and the two pieces for strings, Coronach and Gethsemane Fragment.
The 1990s began with the powerful and expressionist Clarinet Concerto at the Huddersfield Festival while Michael's first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep, based on the childhood of Rudyard Kipling, with a libretto by David Malouf, was premièred at the Cheltenham Festival to enormous public and critical acclaim in 1993. It was subsequently broadcast by BBC radio and television and recorded on cd. The London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis premièred and took on tour Secret Garden and then in August 1998, Michael's The Garden of Earthly Delights, a BBC Proms commission, was premièred by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Mstislav Rostropovich.
As part of Berkeley's tenure as Composer in Association to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales he was commissioned to write three new works, and the second, the Concerto for Orchestra, was premièred at the 2005 Proms. This piece, as with most of Michael's significant orchestral work, much of his chamber music and his operas, is available on cd as part of the Chandos Berkeley Edition. His final commission for the National Orchestra of Wales was for chorus and orchestra, a haunting lament written in memory of a young family friend, Gabriel Bailey, and Berkeley's long-time friend and collaborator, Richard Hickox. Gabriel's Lament memorably includes the singing of hump-back whales.
Michael's second opera, Jane Eyre, written to David Malouf's libretto, has been produced in the UK, Australia and America. His third opera, For You, was written to a libretto by Ian McEwan and commissioned by Music Theatre Wales. It has toured around the UK and Italy and was released on cd in 2010.
Recent works include an Oboe Quintet Into the Ravine for Nicholas Daniel and the Carducci String Quartet and Three Rilke Sonnets for Claire Booth and the Nash Ensemble.
Michael has written incidental music for radio and three film scores: Captive (1986), starring Oliver Reed and Irina Brook, directed by Paul Mayersberg for which Michael collaborated with The Edge of U2; Goldeneye (1991) - a dramatised life of Ian Fleming starring Charles Dance and directed by Don Boyd and another Don Boyd film, Twenty One (1991) starring Patsy Kensit and Rufus Sewell.
For ten years from 1995 Michael was artistic director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music, where he premièred over a hundred new works and initiated a policy of having a contemporary work in every programme. He built the music programme for the Sydney Festival in Australia for three years at the beginning of the Millenium and, with Judith Weir and Anthony Payne, jointly directed the Spitalfields Festival in the previous decade. He has, for several years, been the featured composer for the New York Philharmusica.
Michael currently presents Radio 3's Private Passions, which won the Broadcasting Press Guild's Radio Programme of the Year Award in 1996, and for nine years was Chairman of the Governors of The Royal Ballet until 2012. Michael has been commissioned to write a new anthem for the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury on March 21 2013, and some Cabaret Songs for Barbara Hannigan and Angela Hewitt to be premiered in Italy in July 2013.
Michael was appointed a CBE for services to music in the Queen's Birthday Honours published on 16 June 2012.
On 27 February 2013 it was announced that Michael Berkeley is to be made a non-party political peer in the House of Lords.
Berkeley said ‘Naturally I feel very honoured to be appointed to The House of Lords and I am particularly pleased that the Appointments Commission was keen to increase representation in the field of Music and The Arts.’
Roger Wright, Controller BBC Radio 3, Director BBC Proms said: ‘I join with my colleagues at BBC Radio 3 in offering congratulations to our presenter Michael Berkeley on his appointment as a non-party political peer in the House of Lords. Michael is not only an accomplished composer but also an expert communicator, not least reflected in his ability to have engaging and insightful conversations with his guests on our award-winning programme Private Passions. This recognition of his place in our society is hugely deserved.’