Wand studied at the Cologne Conservatory, initially as a composition and piano student. His conducting technique was almost entirely self-taught. He began his career in Wuppertal and Allenstein as a repetiteur and conductor, and was later made chief conductor in Detmold. In 1939, he was appointed a conductor, and subsequently first conductor, with the Cologne Opera, where he remained until the opera house was destroyed by Allied bombing raids in 1944. He then became conductor of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra for the remainder of the war, until April 1945. With the end of fighting, he returned to Cologne to begin reconstructing the city's musical life, first as music director of the Cologne Opera, where he remained for three years (1945-1948), and as director of concerts, initially a 10-year appointment that was later extended for life. He taught music in the city, and became a professor at the Hochschule für Musik in 1948. He also became head of the Gürzenich Orchestra, a post he held until 1974.
Wand began making appearances as a guest conductor throughout Europe during the early 1950s, including his British debut with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1951. His guest appearances included concerts in the Soviet Union and Japan. His professional life, however, remained centered in Cologne, where he was at the center of the revived city's musical life. In addition to his performances of the mainstream German-Austrian repertory -- Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Bruckner -- he was a major advocate of the works of such contemporary composers as Ligeti, Varèse, and Zimmermann, and recorded the music of Frank Martin and Anton Webern. Wand resigned his Cologne positions in 1974 and moved to Switzerland, where he became a regular guest conductor of the Berne Symphony Orchestra. After 1974, he began working more closely with the various broadcast orchestras in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and was also hailed for his performances of the operas of Mozart and Verdi. Wand recorded exclusively for RCA/BMG, including all of Bruckner's symphonies -- a major feat at the time -- with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as Schubert's extant eight symphonies; and he later recorded the Schubert symphonies with the NDR symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. From 1982 until 1991, he also took over the post of music director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg. Among his recordings are the complete Brahms and Beethoven symphonies. These recordings have attracted a substantial international following, acclaimed for their attention to the details of the written score and the spirituality of the playing.