Claudio Abbado

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Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado - L'Aquila - 2012 - 2.jpg
Claudio Abbado in 2012
Senator for Life
In office
30 August 2013 – 20 January 2014
Nominated by Giorgio Napolitano
Personal details
Born (1933-06-26) 26 June 1933 (age 81)
Milan, Italy
Political party Independent

Claudio Abbado, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI[1][2] (Italian: [ˈklaudjo abˈbado]; 26 June 1933 – 20 January 2014) was an Italian conductor. Widely considered one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, he served as music director of the La Scala opera house in Milan, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music director of the Vienna State Opera, and principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. He was made a Senator for life in the Senate of Italy in 2013.

Early life[edit]

Claudio Abbado has an interesting family history, as he is a descendant of a Moorish king, Abdul Abbad, who fled Al-Andalus hundreds of years earlier and arrived in Piedmont, Italy. In time, Abdul married an Italian and created a family estate that eventually was given the name "Castello Abaddo".[3] The family changed their name to Abbado and for several generations they enjoyed both wealth and respect. Claudio's great-grandfather squandered the family fortune and good name gambling. His son, Claudio's grandfather, became a respected professor at the University of Turin.[3] His grandfather re-established the family's good name and also showed considerable talent as an amateur musician. Born in Milan, Italy, Abbado was the son of violinist and composer Michelangelo Abbado,[4] who was his first piano teacher, and the brother of the musician Marcello Abbado. Claudio's father, Michelangelo, continued the respect for music that his father had taught him as he was both a professional violinist and a professor at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory. He emphasized music in the home to good results,[nb 1] as Claudio showed much talent along with his brother, Marcello, who became a concert pianist and teacher at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. Claudio's mother also was an adept pianist, his sister gave up a career as a musician for marriage; Claudio's other brother was successful, albeit as an architect.[3][5][nb 2]

Some of Claudio's strongest memories as a child came during the Nazi occupation of Milan. During this period, his mother spent time in prison and the family attempted to harbor a Jewish family. This period solidified a hatred of fascism in the young boy's head.[5] He also remembers one of the earliest performances he was taken to, as Antonino Votto performed Aida at La Scala.[5]

Claudio experienced increasing amounts of music as he grew older; he was taken to opera at La Scala among other places. When he was eight years old, he remembers attending a performance of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, by Antonio Guarnieri. He then wrote in his diary that this was a composition that he would one day conduct.[3][5] He also had the opportunity to attend many orchestral rehearsals in Milan led by such conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler and later told interviewers that Toscanini's tyrannical and sometimes abusive manner towards musicians in rehearsal repelled him, and that he resolved to behave in the gentler manner of Bruno Walter.[citation needed] Others that he remembers as influencing him as a child were Victor de Sabata and Rafael Kubelík.[5] When he was 15, he met Leonard Bernstein who commented, "You have the eye to be a conductor."[5] After studying piano, composition, and conducting at the Milan Conservatory at age 16,[4][6] he graduated as a pianist in 1955.[3] The following year he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music.[4] It was while he was here that he cultivated a longtime friendship with Zubin Mehta, with whom he would sneak into performances of such masters as Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan.[3][5] He also spent time at the Chigiana Academy in Siena.[4] In 1958, he made his conducting debut at a symphony in Trieste,[3] performing works by Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Hindemith.[7] That summer he visited the United States where he won the international Serge Koussevitzky Competition for conductors[6] at the Tanglewood Music Festival,[3][4][7] which resulted in a number of operatic conducting engagements in Italy.[nb 3] In 1959 Claudio conducted his first opera, The Love for Three Oranges, by Prokofiev, in Trieste, and in 1963 he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Prize for conductors,[4][6][7] allowing him to work for five months with the New York Philharmonic, training with the conductor Leonard Bernstein.[3][nb 4][nb 5] It was while with the New York Philharmonic that Abbado made his professional debut, along with the other two winners, on 7 April 1963. Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times wrote,

The most idiosyncratic and much the showman of the three is Mr. Abbado. He conducts with a good deal of personality and a somewhat strenuous podium manner, with a good deal of body English. He knows he is before the public, and every gesture, including an imperious way of shaking the hair from his eyes, shows that he has thoroughly researched this aspect of the conductor's art. He will probably develop into an electrifying type of virtuoso conductor. And he is Latin through and through.[7]


1965 was a busy year as he refined his technique with multiple guest performances with such great orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London also, and the Montreal Symphony.[8] While performing at the RIAS Festival in Berlin in 1965, he so impressed Herbert von Karajan that he was invited to the Salzburg Festival the following year.[8] Abbado made his debut at La Scala in his hometown of Milan in 1960 where he would serve as its primary conductor from 1969 to 1986,[2][8] conducting not only the traditional Italian repertoire but also presenting a contemporary opera each year, as well as a concert series devoted to the works of Berg and Mussorgsky. He was instrumental in increasing accessibility to the working-class.[4] He was the founder of the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1978,[2] and in 1982, he founded the Filarmonica della Scala for the performance of orchestral repertoire in concert.

Abbado conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1965 in a concert at the Salzburg Festival with an excellent performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which he repeated in Vienna. From 1966 through 1970, Claudio continued to perform at numerous festivals and with many orchestras. He conducted from memory at the now defunct Piccola Scala, located next to La Scala, the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni's Atomtod, on 25 March 1965. He performed at multiple festivals over the next couple of years, such as the Lucerne Festival and the Prague Spring Festival.[7] In 1966 at the Holland Festival he performed Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi and again at Expo 67, in Montreal. He also performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1967 in addition to multiple engagements in the United States, Europe, and Israel.[8]

In 1965, Abbado made his British debut with the Halle Orchestra, followed in 1966 by his London Symphony Orchestra debut.[4] In June 1969 Abbado was appointed as the primary conductor of La Scala. He would share the artistic director position with Giorgio Strehler and Carlo Maria Badini from 1977. Starting in 1969, he would institute major changes to the programs at La Scala. He extended the opera season to four months, and focused on giving inexpensive performances for the working class and students. He also reinvigorated the repertory with new productions of classics among other changes.[8] Among composers that he brought to the forefront were Luigi Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono and his world premiere of Al gran sole carico d'amore.[8][9] On 7 October 1968, Claudio made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera with the classic Don Carlo to raving reviews. Irving Kolodin wrote in the Saturday Review, "He asserted himself most positively as Verdi's buckler and shield. On the basis of this showing there is every reason to suppose that he can become a first rank opera conductor."[8] He became the principal conductor for 1971 for the Vienna Philharmonic,[4] and served as music director and conductor for the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991,[2][4] with notable productions such as Mussorgsky's original Boris Godunov and his seldom-heard Khovanshchina, Schubert's Fierrabras, and Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims. He also became the principal guest conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. 1972 and 1973 saw him touring with the Vienna Philharmonic in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the People's Republic of China, including the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.[8] He also had guest appearances with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.[5] All of this touring caused some to criticize Claudio as some felt that he was stretching himself too much and this was reinforced when he was unable to open the 1972-73 season at La Scala due to illnes.[8] He spent time in Switzerland resting and gaining medical care, after which he stated that he would do fewer guest appearances whilst focusing on La Scala and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1973, he toured with the Vienna Philharmonic to Japan and China, and in 1974 he traveled to the Soviet Union with La Scala. 1976 he toured Europe and made La Scala's American debut in Washington D.C. for the American Bicentennial.[10]

He continued to conduct on a regular basis with the London orchestra and from 1979 to 1988 was its principal conductor.[2][4] From 1982 to 1986 he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With both orchestras, Abbado made recordings mainly for Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Sony, though he made a small number for EMI. He was appointed, in 1987, as the General Musical Director of the Vienna Festival.[2]

Berlin Philharmonic[edit]

In 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic elected Abbado as its chief conductor and artistic director to succeed Herbert von Karajan.[2][4][11] In 1998, he announced that he would be leaving the Berlin Philharmonic after the expiration of his contract in 2002.[12] Aside from the major institutions he directed, Abbado was often happiest with orchestras of his own creation - the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra,[13] and the Orchestra Mozart.[14] In 1992, he co-founded Berlin Encounters a chamber music festival.[2][15] In 1994, he became the artistic director for the Salzburg Easter Festival.[2] In 1988, Abbado founded the music festival Wien Modern, which has since expanded to include all aspects of contemporary art. This interdisciplinary festival took place each year under his direction as the Artistic Director.[2]

Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000 and the treatment led to the removal of a portion of his digestive system.[16] In 2004 he returned to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and performed Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in a series of recorded live concerts. The resulting CD won Best Orchestral Recording and Record of the Year in Gramophone Magazine's 2006 awards.[17] The Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic established the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize in 2006 in his honour.[18]

The "Digital Concert Hall" of the Berlin Philharmonic contains in publically available form (per acusto-optic live-event documentation on the internet) a selection of the concerts Abbado gave with this orchestra.

Post-Berlin work[edit]

After recovering from cancer, Abbado formed the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003,[16] whose concerts were highly acclaimed.[19] He also served as music director of the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna, Italy.

In September 2007, Abbado cancelled his future conducting engagements on the advice of his physicians,[20] but two months later he resumed conducting with an engagement in Bologna.[21] In July 2011, he said he was in good health.[22]

Musical style[edit]

Abbado performed and recorded a wide range of Romantic works, in particular Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies he recorded several times. He was also noted for his interpretations of modern works by composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Giacomo Manzoni, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Thomas Adler, Giovanni Sollima, Roberto Carnevale, Franco Donatoni and George Benjamin.

Abbado was known to exhibit a friendly, understated and non-confrontational manner in rehearsal, according to whomever worked with him or heard him being interviewed. While performing, Abbado was known to conduct totally from memory, like Toscanini.[5]

Abbado was also well known for his work with young musicians. He was the founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra (1978) and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (1988).[2] He was also a frequent guest conductor with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with whom he recorded a cycle of Franz Schubert symphonies to considerable acclaim. More recently, he worked with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela.[23] He was also known for his Germanic orchestral repertory as well as his interest in the music of Gioachino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi.[4]


Abbado received many awards and recognitions from numerous nations. On 12 July 1984, Claudio was gifted with the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and on 13 January 1997, he was awarded the Medal for Meritorious for Culture and Art.[1][2] France awarded Claudio the Grand cross of the Légion d'honneur, and Germany awarded him the Order of Merit, in 1992,[2] and also the Kythera Prize. Japan awarded him the Imperial Prize of Japan. The city of Vienna awarded Abbado with an "Ehrenring [Honor ring]" in 1994,[2] and he also received the Mahler Medal.

Claudio has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Ferrara (1990), Cambridge (1994), Aberdeen (1986)[2] and Havana.

In 1994, Abbado won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1994,[citation needed] and he won the 1991 International Competition for Composers held in Vienna.[2] He was also awarded the Philips Prize for his performance at the Salzburg Festival in 1965.[9]

On 30 August 2013, Abbado was appointed to the Italian Senate as a Senator for life by President Giorgio Napolitano for his "outstanding cultural achievements".

Recording awards[edit]

Claudio released many operatic recordings and also received many awards for these. Among these were the Diapason Award in 1966 and 1967; also in 1967 he received the Grand Prix du Disque.[9][24] In 1968 he was presented with the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis and also the Dutch Edison Award.[9] Finally in 1973, the Vienna Mozart Society awarded Claudio the Mozart medal.[24] Abbado received the 1997 Grammy Award in the Best Small Ensemble Performance (with or without conductor) category for "Hindemith: Kammermusik No. 1 With Finale 1921, Op. 24 No. 1" and the 2005 Grammy Award in the Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with Orchestra) category for "Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3" performed by Martha Argerich.

In April 2012, Abbado was voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame,[25] and in May of the same year, he was awarded the conductor prize at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards.[26]

Personal life[edit]

Abbado's son from his first marriage, to singer Giovanna Cavazzoni, is the opera director Daniele Abbado. They also had a daughter Alessandra. Sebastiano is his son with his second wife, Gabriella Cantalupi. He also had a relationship with the violinist Viktoria Mullova, and was the father of her oldest child, Misha.[27][28][29] His nephew, Roberto Abbado (the son of his brother Marcello, born 1926, who is a composer and pianist), is also a conductor.

Claudio was an avowed "anti-fascist", which he advertised with performances such as at the conclusion of the 1971-72 season as La Scala, he led a concert of "anti-fascist music" by Verdi, Beethoven, and Prokofiev.[9][24] He enjoyed museums, watching soccer, and the theatre. He also was active in skiing, table tennis and tennis, and swimming.[9][24]

Abbado died in Bologna on 20 January 2014 at the age of 80.[30][31] Raffaella Grimaudo, a spokeswoman for the Bologna mayor's office, said that no cause was given in announcing his death, which followed a long illness.[15] He is buried in Switzerland.


  1. ^ Michelangelo reportedly would organize chamber music trios and quartets at home for the family to practice and perform.[5]
  2. ^ Sources disagree as to with which musical instrument Claudio's sister was proficient as some say the piano[5] and others the violin.[3]
  3. ^ Zubin Mehta spent the summer with Abbado in Tanglewood and placed 2nd in the competition.[7]
  4. ^ An additional prize for winning this contest was $5,000.[3][7]
  5. ^ Three winners were chosen; the other two were Pedro Calderon from Argentina and the Czech Zdeněk Košler.[7]



  • Anon (2014a). "Claudio Abbado". Gramophone. Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  • Anon (1997). "Claudio Abbado". Presidency of the Republic (Italy). Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  • Di Stefano, Paolo (9 May 2011). "Giovanna Cavazzoni". Corriere della Serra [Messenger of the Mountains] (in Italian). Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  • Ewen, David, ed. (1978). "Claudio Abbado". Musicians Since 1900: Performers in Concert and Opera. New York, NY: The H. W. Wilson Company. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0-8242-0565-0. LCCN 78012727. 
  • Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abbadio, Claudio". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8. 
  • Moritz, Charles; Lohr, Evelyn; Sloan, Henry; Dugan, Kieran, eds. (1974). "Abbado, Claudio". Current Biography Yearbook 1973. New York, NY: The H. W. Wilson Company. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0-8242-0543-X. LCCN 40027432. 
  • Randel, Don Michael (1996). "Claudio Abbado". The Harvard biographical dictionary of music. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-37299-9. 
  • Service, Tom (21 August 2007). "The maestro". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 7 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 

External links[edit]

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Guido Cantelli
Music Director, La Scala, Milan
Succeeded by
Riccardo Muti
Preceded by
Herbert von Karajan
Principal conductor, Berlin Philharmonic
Succeeded by
Simon Rattle
Preceded by
Egon Seefehlner
Musical Director, Vienna State Opera
Succeeded by
Eberhard Wachter
Preceded by
André Previn
Principal Conductor, London Symphony Orchestra
Succeeded by
Michael Tilson Thomas
Preceded by
Artistic & Musical Director, Orchestra Mozart
Succeeded by