The origins of Franz Xaver Richter are uncertain beyond the fact that he is known to have been of Moravian-Bohemian descent and may have been born in Holleschau although there is no record of his birth there in the church archives. Richter was a professional singer and received a very thorough musical education possibly under Fux's personal supervision in Vienna. In April 1740 he was appointed vice-Kapellmeister to the Prince-Abbot Anselm von Reichlin-Meldegg in Kempten, Allgäu where he probably worked for the next five or six years. By 1747, however, his name appears among the court musicians of the Elector Palatine Carl Theodor in Mannheim; he is also named in published opera libretti and occasionally styled virtuoso di camera. Although Marpurg (1756) included him as a second violinist in the court orchestra there are no other contemporary references to Richter as an instrumentalist. Six of Richter's symphonies had been published in Paris by 1744 - that is before his appointment to the Electoral court - but he also obtained recognition in Mannheim as a composer of sacred music. In 1748 he was invited by the Elector to compose an oratorio for Good Friday, La deposizione dalla croce. Richter was also active as a teacher and between 1761 and 1767 wrote a composition method, based on Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum, which he dedicated to Carl Theodor.

Among his most important pupils were J.M. Kraus, H.J. Riegel, Carl Stamitz and Ferdinand Fränzl. In 1768 he was appointed a court chamber composer and thereafter his name disappears from the list of court singers. Richter made tours to the Oettigen-Wallerstein court in 1754 and later to France, the Netherlands and England where his compositions found a ready market with publishers. During the 1750s and 1760s he became increasingly displeased with the preoccupation with virtuosity and modishness at Mannheim which he considered was leading composers to over-rely on stereotyped musical effects. In April 1769 he succeeded Joseph Garnier as Kapellmeister at Strasbourg Cathedral, where both his performing and composing activities turned increasingly to sacred music. During his last years Haydn's star pupil Ignaz Pleyel served as his assistant at the cathedral.

Dr Charles Burney considered Richter one of the foremost Mannheim composers even though he consciously eschewed the fashionable style prevalent there. His early works, with their strong Austrian Baroque flavour, found a much warmer reception in musically conservative centres such as London and Berlin than in the south of Germany. His instrumental counterpoint - both in the strict fugal style and also in its freer forms - was much admired in his day and is often deployed with great skill to enliven otherwise predominantly homophonic movements. Burney felt that he occasionally weakened his melodic lines by overuse of the sequence but praised his inventive if conservative approach to thematic construction