Born in Graz, Austria, Böhm studied law and earned a doctorate on this subject. He later studied music at the Graz Conservatory. On the recommendation of Karl Muck, Bruno Walter engaged him at Munich's Bavarian State Opera in 1921. Darmstadt (1927) and Hamburg (1931) were the next places he resided as a young conductor, before succeeding Fritz Busch as head of Dresden's Semper Opera in 1934. He secured a top post at the Vienna State Opera in 1943, eventually becoming music director.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to music lay in bringing to life the operas of his close colleague Richard Strauss. Böhm led the premieres of Strauss's late works Die Schweigsame Frau (1935) and Daphne (1938), of which he is the dedicatee, recorded all of the major operas (often making cuts to the scores), and regularly revived Strauss's operas with strong casts during his tenures in Vienna and Dresden, as well as at the Salzburg Festival.