Paul Ben-Haim was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich into the family of the eminent German law professor, Frankenburger, at the end of the 19th century. He studied composition with Friedrich Klose and Walter Courvoisier and conducting and piano with Berthold Kellermann at the Munich Academy of Arts from 1915 to 1920. He was assistant conductor to Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch at the Munich Opera from 1920 to 1924, and he was the conductor of the Opera of Augsburg from 1924 to 1931. Returning to Munich in 1931, he devoted himself to composition.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the composer emigrated to Palestine and there changed his surname from Frankenburger to Ben-Haim. He accompanied and arranged music for folk singers, an experience which brought the influence of Middle Eastern music to bear upon his compositional style.
Ben-Haim's First Symphony was completed on the day in 1940 when France fell to the Nazis, and this work may be said to express the tragic and intense period of history in which it was composed. In addition, Ben-Haim's First Symphony was the first real symphony to be composed in Palestine. His Second Symphony, composed in 1945, returned to the pastoral Mediterranean moods of the composer's work of the late 1930s. Both symphonies were first presented by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
Ben-Haim was the leader of a group of Palestinian musicians, many of them European émigrés, who developed a fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions. Isolated during World War II, this group, many of whom had been thoroughly trained in European conservatories and academies of music, studied the music of the Middle East and came to incorporate its melodic and rhythmic character into the forms of Western music. Ben-Haim developed a method for notating the complex rhythms and the melodies of Middle Eastern folk music, which facilitated the merging of these traditions in modern Israel.
In 1953 the conductor Serge Koussetvitsky had the idea of a "King David Festival" to coincide with the commemoration of Jerusalem's 3000th anniversary. Koussetvitsky died before the works commissioned for the festival were all completed, but the Koussetvitsky Foundation did commission and Ben-Haim did complete The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, an orchestral work in the concertante style which successfully synthesized Eastern and Western elements of music. He received the Israel State Prize for this composition in 1957. Leonard Bernstein conducted it in New York in 1959, and it remained one of Ben-Haim's most widely admired works.
Ben-Haim was also a professor of composition at conservatories in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, positions which, in addition to his leadership of the Eastern Mediterranean school of composers, made him a principal figure in Israel's musical life. On the practical side, he was influential in the development of music education in Israel, and he also helped to form the musicians' union in his new country. He was awarded the Joel Engel prize of the city of Tel-Aviv on several occasions. Ben-Haim remained active in the musical life of Israel until his death in Tel-Aviv in 1984 at the age of 86.