Michael was born in 1948, the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten. As a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, singing naturally played an important part in his early education. He studied composition, singing, and piano at the Royal Academy of Music but it was not until his late twenties, when he went to study with Richard Rodney Bennett, that Berkeley began to concentrate exclusively on composing. In 1977 he was awarded the Guinness Prize for Composition; two years later he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Since then Michael’s music has been played all over the globe and by some of the world’s finest musicians.

Major early works include Gregorian Variations (conducted in England and America by Andre Previn) and the 1982 oratorio Or Shall We Die? to a text specially written by Ian McEwan, and made into a film for Channel 4 by Richard Eyre. His first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep, based on the childhood of Rudyard Kipling with a libretto by David Malouf, was premièred at the Cheltenham Festival to enormous public and critical acclaim in 1993. It was subsequently broadcast by BBC radio and television and recorded on CD for Chandos. His second opera, Jane Eyre, written to David Malouf's libretto, has been produced in the UK, Australia and America and his third opera, For You, to a libretto by Ian McEwan and commissioned by Music Theatre Wales, received its premiere in 2008.

As part of Berkeley’s tenure as Composer in Association to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales he was commissioned to write three new works and the second, the Concerto for Orchestra, was premiered at the 2005 Proms. This piece, as with most of his significant orchestral work, much of his chamber music and his operas, is available on CD as part of the Chandos Berkeley Edition.

For ten years from 1995 Michael was artistic director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music. He currently presents Radio 3's Private Passions, which won the Broadcasting Press Guild's Radio Programme of the Year Award in 1996, and is Chairman of the Governors of The Royal Ballet.