Emil Petrovics's outlook and his relations with the world were determined, perhaps more than other people's, by the geographical location of his early youth, Nagybecskerek, which is almost equidistant from Belgrade and the present-day Hungarian and Romanian borders. Petrovics's bi-national upbringing also played a decisive role in his intellectual directions: on his father's side the Serb, on his mother's the Hungarian culture was deeply indented in him. The former bequeathed him a verbal talent as a writer, the latter musical talent. He moved to Budapest with his mother at the age of eleven. Here he studied composition, first with Rezső Sugár, then Ferenc Szabó, János Visky, and eventually with the Ferenc Farkas. His relations with music, the aesthetic and ethical measure of his work as a composer, were determined by the years he spent (1951/52-1955/56) with Ferenc Farkas at the Music Academy. It was this ideal that he transmitted to his own students once he himself became a professor at the Academy (from 1968), and then as the head of the composition department (from 1979). His career encompasses a very wide sphere of activities, unusual among composers after the Second World War. The spheres of interest of this colourful, always creative personality extended from the world of the theatre and the cinema to public life and cultural policy, from pedagogy to journalism, and from composing to the performing arts. In none of these spheres did he become a dilettante; he approached each of them with a committed consciousness of calling and armed with the necessary professional skills. His parallel "career lines" are illustrated by the data: between 1960-64, as head of music of the Petőfi Theatre, among other things he played a part in bringing the musical to Hungary, as well as in the development of the Hungarian musical; from 1964 onwards he taught at the College of Theatre and Cinema the meaning and significance of musical works to future directors; between 1986-1990 he was a member of parliament; from1991 he filled the post of chairman of the Office of Authors' Rights; in 1991 he became a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and from 1993 a member of the Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Art.
Emil Petrovics always felt the "pulse" of the age. He had an extra sense which almost always enabled him to be the first among his contemporaries to express a new mood. He was a composer with a feel for drama. He wrote three operas (C'est la guerre, 1961; Lysistraté, 1962; Crime and Punishment, 1969) and nine cantatas, as well as an oratorio which was of epoch-making significance both musically and as regards its message (The Book of Jonah, 1969). In his instrumental compositions (solo, concerto, and chamber works) one can also observe the dramatic construction of the musical elements. A particularly fortunate feature of Emil Petrovics's talent as a composer was his choice of literature and his manner of turning the text into a composition. The musical language is very varied: a particular mixture of the colourful folklore of the Carpathian basin (first and foremost the exciting world of Serbian dance music), and big city folklore (which showed an - in his generation exceptional - openness to the lighter genres) and the legacy of Bartók's and Kodály's musical idioms. It is the particular harmony of different registers that made Emil Petrovics one of the most individual representatives of Hungarian composition following the age of Bartók and Kodály.
Whole generations attended his classes at the Academy, and the most talented ones – naturally – chose a different path as composers. Nonetheless, the effect of his personality and music was epoch-making, despite the different and contrary reactions.
He was awarded the Erkel Prize (1960, 1963), the Kossuth Prize (1966), the titles Meritorious Artist (1975) and Outstanding Artist (1982), and the Béla Bartók-Ditta Pásztory Prize (1989,2000).