Being considered a child prodigy, he came into contact with leading Romantic composers of his time at an early age. From 1839 on he was a protégé of Felix Mendelssohn, and in 1848 joint the circle around Franz Liszt in Weimar, Germany.
After leaving the New German School movement behind him, breaking with Liszt, he moved to Hanover and became acquainted with Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.
In 1866, he moved to Berlin, where he became founding director of the Royal Academy of Music. On August 15, 1907, in Berlin, he died of actinomycosis.