Reinecke was born in Altona, Hamburg, Germany, at that time a Danish town. He studied with his father, Johann Peter Rudolph Reinecke, a music teacher. Carl began to compose at the age of seven, and his first public appearance as a pianist was when he was twelve years old.
He undertook his first concert tour, in 1843, through Denmark and Sweden. After a stay in Leipzig, where he studied under Mendelssohn and Schumann, Reinecke went on tour with Königslöw and Wasielewski, Schumann's biographer, in North Germany and Denmark. In 1846, he was appointed Court Pianist for Christian VIII in Copenhagen. There he remained until 1848, when he resigned and went to Paris. Overall he wrote four concertos for his instrument (and many cadenzas for others' works, including a large set published as his Opus 87), as well as concertos for violin, cello, harp and flute. In the winter of 1850/51, Carl Schurz reports attending weekly “musical evenings” in Paris where Reinecke was in attendance. In 1851, Reinecke became a professor at the Cologne Conservatory. In ensuing years he was appointed musical director at Barmen, and became the academic, musical director and conductor of the Singakademie at Breslau.
In 1860, Reinecke was appointed director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts in Leipzig, and professor of composition and piano at the Conservatorium. He led the orchestra until 1895. There he conducted such premieres as the full seven-movement version of Brahms's German Requiem (1869). In 1865 the Gewandhaus-Quartett premiered his piano quintet, and in 1892 his D major string quartet.
After his retirement he devoted his time to composition and an output that contains almost three hundred published works. He wrote several operas (all unperformed today) including König Manfred. During this time, Reinecke continually made concert tours to England and elsewhere. His pianoforte playing belonged to a school in which grace and neatness were characteristic, and at one time Reinecke was probably unrivalled as a Mozart player and an accompanist. At the age of 80, he recorded his playing on piano roll for the Welte-Mignon company, making him the earliest-born pianist to have his playing preserved in any format. He died, at 85, in Leipzig.
^Carl Schurz (1907). "XII: In Paris". The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Volume One. Schurz reports “We had every week a ‘musical evening’; sometimes in my room, in which young musicians — among them Reinecke, who afterwards became the famous director of the well-known ‘Gewandhaus Concerts’ in Leipzig — reviewed the most recent composers, and now and then produced their own compositions, while I and others served as an enthusiastic public.”