Richard Wilson was born in Cleveland, where he studied piano with Leonard Shure and cello with Ernst Silberstein. Much of his early musical study, including composition, took place at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. Upon graduation from Harvard, he received the Frank Huntington Beebe Award, which afforded him the opportunity to study piano in Munich with Friedrich Wührer and composition in Rome with Robert Moevs, his composition professor at Harvard.
Wilson has composed over one hundred works, ranging in medium from solo tuba to full orchestra, which have been played in major halls around the world. Among those who have performed his music are Dawn Upshaw, Amy Burton, Jan Opalach, Mary Nessinger, Rolf Schulte, Sophie Shao, Blanca Uribe, Ursula Oppens, Fred Sherry, Walter Trampler, the Chicago Quartet, the Muir Quartet, the Delmé Quartet, the Composers Quartet, the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt, the Residentie Orkest of the Hague under Gerald Ostkamp, the London Philharmonic, the Pro-Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, the Sau Paulo Symphony, and the American Symphony all under Leon Botstein, and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Colombia under Luis Biava.
Wilson has received numerous awards, including an Academy Award and the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Creative Arts Award in Music from the City of Cleveland, the Stoeger Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a Guggenheim Fellowship under which he composed his opera Æthelred the Unready. He is composer-in-residence with the American Symphony. From 1966 to 2016, he taught at Vassar College, where he was Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music.