The first music theory lesson he had was in 1849 in Bonn, and it was given to him by Professor Heinrich Carl Breidenstein, a friend of his Father. At this time he was staying at an estate in Bergisch Gladbach, where he wrote much of his music. The farm belonged to a Lawyer and notary called Neissen, who lived in it with his unmarried sister. Later the estate was bought by the Zanders family who owned a large paper mill. The young Bruch was taught French and English conversation by his Father. In later years, Maria Zanders became a friend and patron.
Bruch had a long career as a Teacher, Conductor and Composer, moving among musical posts in Germany: Mannheim (1862–1864), Koblenz (1865–1867), Sondershausen (1867–1870), Berlin (1870–1872), and Bonn, where he spent 1873–78 working privately. At the height of his career he spent three seasons as Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society (1880–83).
His Violin Concerto No. 1, in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) is one of the most popular Romantic violin concertos. It uses several techniques from Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. These include the linking of movements, as well as omitting the Classical opening orchestral exposition and other conservative formal structural devices of earlier concertos.
Other works include two concerti for violin and orchestra, No. 2 in D minor (1878) and No. 3 in D minor (1891) (which Bruch himself regarded as at least as fine as the famous first); as well as a lovely and melodic Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra, and many more pieces for violin, viola or cello and orchestra. His three symphonies contain distinctive German Romantic melodic writing effectively orchestrated.
Bruch married Clara Tuczek, a singer he had met whilst touring in Germany, in Berlin on 3 January 1881. The couple returned to Liverpool and took lodgings in Sefton Park. Their daughter, Margaretha, was born in Liverpool in 1882.
He taught composition at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik from 1890 until his retirement in 1910.
To this triple output he added three orchestral suites in later life, of which the third has a remarkable history. The origin can be found in Capri, where Bruch had witnessed a procession in which a tuba played a tune that "could very well be the basis of a funeral march", and would be the basis of this suite, finished in 1909. The Sutro sisters, however, had asked Bruch for a concerto specifically for them, which he produced by arranging this suite into a double piano concerto, but only to be played within the Americas and not beyond. The Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 88a, was finished in 1912 for the American duo Sutro Pianists Rose and Ottilie Sutro, but was never played in the original version. They performed the work only twice, in two different versions of their own. The score was withdrawn in 1917 and rediscovered only after Ottilie Sutro's death in 1970. The sisters also played a major part in the fate of the manuscript of the Violin Concerto No. 1. Bruch sent it to them to be sold in the United States, but they kept it and sold it for profit themselves.
The two other works of Bruch which are still widely played were also written for solo string instrument with orchestra: the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, which includes an arrangement of the tune "Hey Tuttie Tatie", best known for its use in the song "Scots Wha Hae" by Robert Burns; and the Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, for cello and orchestra (subtitled "Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Violoncello and Orchestra"), which starts and ends with the solo cello's setting of the Kol Nidre ("All Vows ... ") incantation which begins the Jewish (Ashkenazic) Yom Kippur Service. This work may well have inspired Ernest Bloch's Schelomo (subtitled "Hebrew Rhapsody") of 1916, an even more passionate and extended one-movement composition, also with a Jewish subject and also for solo cello and orchestra.
Towards the end of his life, in 1918, he once more considered smaller ensembles with the composition of two string quintets, of which one served as the basis for a string octet, written in 1920 for four violins, two violas, cello and a double bass . This octet is somewhat at odds with the innovative style of the decade. While such composers as Schönberg and Stravinsky were part of the forward-looking modern trend, Bruch and others tried to compose still within the Romantic tradition, effectively glorifying a form of Late Romanticism and avoiding the revolutionary spirit that was engulfing the defeated Germany. All three of these late chamber works exhibit a 'concertante' style in which the first violin part is predominant and contains much of the musical interest. By the time they came to be performed professionally for the first time, in the 1930s, Bruch's reputation had deteriorated and he was known only for the famous Concerto.
Bruch died, quietly and painlessly, in his house in Berlin-Friedenau in 1920. He was buried next to his wife, who had died on 27 August the previous year, at the Old St. Matthäus churchyard at Berlin-Schöneberg. His daughter Margaretha later had carved on the gravestone "Music is the language of God".
The success of Kol Nidrei led to the assumption by many that Bruch himself was of Jewish ancestry — indeed, as long as the National Socialist Party was in power (1933-1945) his music was banned because he was considered a possible Jew for having written music with an openly Jewish theme. As a result, his music was largely forgotten in German-speaking countries. There is no evidence, however, that Bruch was of Jewish origin. As far as can be ascertained, none of his ancestors were Jews. Bruch himself was given the middle name Christian and was raised Protestant.