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Tracing The Career Of Claudio Abbado, A Consummate Conductor

Celebrated conductor Claudio Abbado in 1979 in his native Milan, during his tenure as music director of the city's famed opera house, La Scala.
Giorgio Lotti
Mondadori/Getty Images
Celebrated conductor Claudio Abbado in 1979 in his native Milan, during his tenure as music director of the city's famed opera house, La Scala.

Claudio Abbado, one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation, died Monday in Bologna, Italy, at age 80. His death was announced by a spokesperson for Bologna's mayor, saying that it followed an unspecified long illness. Abbado had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000; following surgery for that illness, he was transformed into a hauntingly gaunt figure.

Over the course of Abbado's career, he led several of the world's most revered orchestras and opera companies, including La Scala in Milan, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera, and he served as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's principal guest conductor from 1982 to 1985. No matter the setting, he was an artist of rare insight and great lyricism in repertoire from Rossini to Mahler to Russian symphonies to contemporary music.

While he was a self-effacing personality who only rarely granted interviews, Abbado, who memorized every score he led, was widely revered among his fellow musicians and his fans, the most fervent of whom are known as "The Abbadiani."

In 1987, the city of Vienna named him as its general music director; he quickly established the Wien Modern festival, where he championed a wide array of contemporary composers including György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono. "Musical history does not end with Puccini," Abbado told Time magazine in 2001.

In the late 1980s, it was anticipated that Abbado would become music director of the New York Philharmonic, where he had been an assistant conductor early on. However, just at the brink of his move to New York, the Berlin Philharmonic tapped him to succeed Herbert von Karajan; Abbado remained with Berlin until 2002.

Born in Milan June 26, 1933, Abbado came from a deeply musical family with ties to the city that stretched back centuries. His father, Michelangelo, was a violinist who taught at the city's Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory; Claudio's older brother, Marcello, eventually became the school's director. (Marcello's son Roberto, Claudio's nephew, has also become a noted conductor who serves as one of the "artistic partners" of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota.)

Claudio Abbado began studying the violin and piano with his parents as a child, but soon decided that he would rather conduct. His choice was cemented in 1949, when Leonard Bernstein visited Milan to conduct, with Michelangelo Abbado serving as the soloist.

The Abbados were notable for their strong opposition to Mussolini, anti-Semitism and fascism. Abbado told the Italian paper La Repubblica that his mother helped anti-fascist partisans in Italy and helped Jews escape to Switzerland; she was also jailed for taking in a Jewish child. An often-repeated anecdote about the young Abbado himself during World War II was that, as a 12-year-old, he wrote "Viva Bartók" on a local wall; the Gestapo soon came looking in the neighborhood for "the partisan Bartók." As an adult, he said his sole political concern was to be against fascism.

He enrolled at the Milan conservatory, but was soon swept into an international current. In 1955, he went to study at the Salzburg Festival in Austria with pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda, and spent the two following summers at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy. It was in Siena that the young Abbado met two other students who also went on to major international careers: Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim. And it was Mehta who talked Abbado into venturing to America to study at Tanglewood in the summer of 1958, where Mehta promptly won the institute's Koussevitsky Prize for emerging conductors. In the same year, Abbado made his operatic conducting debut in Trieste, Italy; two years later, he made his debut at La Scala.

His association with Bernstein soon came full circle. In 1963, Abbado entered the Dimitri Mitropoulos Memorial International Competition; the prize was a one-year position as an assistant conductor to Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. After that experience, Abbado became far better known in Europe. Karajan invited him to conduct Mahler at the Salzburg Festival in 1965, and then invited him to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic the following year.

During this period demand grew for him as an opera conductor. In 1968, he made his debuts at London's Covent Garden and at the Metropolitan Opera, and also became La Scala's music director. During his tenure at La Scala, the orchestra became its own performing ensemble, the Orchestra della Scala. Abbado also extended the opera's season and took the orchestra out of the vaunted theater and across the city, venturing into factories to perform for workers. Abbado left La Scala in 1986 to assume the same post at the Vienna State Opera.

In 1971, he was named conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he became principal conductor in 1979 and then, from 1983 to 1989, its music director.

Nurturing young orchestral musicians was hugely important to Abbado. He was the founder of several European training orchestras, including the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart.

Married twice, Abbado had two children with Giovanna Cavazzoni: son Daniele Abbado, an opera and theater director who has recently mounted productions at houses including La Scala and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and daughter Alessandra. With his second wife, Gabriella Cantalupi, he had a son, Sebastiano. He was also the father of London-based jazz bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, his child with violinist Viktoria Mullova.

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Essential Abbado

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 -Scherzo

"Symphony No. 7 in E minor ("Song of the Night") [3. Scherzo. Schattenhaft-Trio]"

From 'Mahler: Symphony No. 7'

By Claudio Abbado

Mahler and the Berlin Philharmonic mark the pages of Abbado's early career. In 1965, maestro Herbert von Karajan invited Abbado to conduct Mahler at that year's Salzburg Festival and then paved the way for the young conductor's Berlin Philharmonic debut the following year. Little did Abbado then know that he would succeed Karajan, in 1990, as the chief conductor of the famed ensemble. Abbado was an inspired Mahler conductor throughout his career. His lyrical insights and command of detail were qualities perhaps first absorbed during his years as a conducting student in Vienna. This performance, recorded live in 2001, brims with sonic delights. Listen for the creepy, sliding strings, flatulent bassoons and snide comments from muted brass.

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina - Prelude

"Khovanshchina, opera in 5 acts, edited by Shostakovich [Prelude. Dawn over the River Moscow]"

From 'Mussorgsky: Kovanschina'

By Claudio Abbado

Opera of all stripes was central to Abbado's musical life. He was in his mid-20s when he made his operatic debut, conducting Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges in 1958. But Abbado's true passion for Russian opera would lay with Mussorgsky. He championed the composer's two misunderstood masterpieces, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, scoring major successes on stage and in recordings, reviving Mussorgsky's original scores (untouched by Rimsky-Korsakov).

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - 'Ma, signor' (Act 1 finale)

"Ma, signor"

From 'Barber of Seville'

By Claudio Abbado

It's fitting that Abbado excelled at Italian opera composers, especially Verdi and Rossini. In 1984 he resuscitated Rossini's long-forgotten Il Viaggio a Riems and he made sparkling recordings of Rossini staples L'italiana in Algeri, Cenerentola and Il barbieri di Siviglia. He recorded Barber twice — in 1992, when Placido Domingo sang the title role, and 20 years earlier with a crack ensemble cast that included Hermann Prey, Teresa Berganza and Luigi Alva. In this Act 1 finale from the latter, Abbado keeps Rossini's witty score fizzing with perfectly judged tempos and dynamics.

Berg: Pieces for orchestra, Op. 6 - No. 1, Prelude

"Pieces (3) for orchestra, Op. 6 [No. 1, Prelude]"

From 'Alban Berg: Lulu-Suite; Altenberg-Lieder; 3 Orchesterstücke'

By Claudio Abbado

Abbado's broad repertoire included a well-chosen collection of modern and contemporary music, from his 1965 Salzburg Festival performance of Giacomo Manzoni's opera Atomtod to pieces written for him by Luigi Nono. Abbado had an affinity for Alban Berg, a composer he returned to numerous times, most recently in a captivating 2011 recording of the Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust and Orchestra Mozart, just one of the many ensembles the conductor founded. He recorded Berg's atmospheric Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 twice. This earlier rendition from 1970 — for years a benchmark recording — emphasizes the music's color and warmth. The performance features the London Symphony Orchestra, which he led as principal conductor and then music director from 1979 to 1986.

Verdi: Macbeth - 'Sappia la sposa' (Act 1 duet, excerpt)

"Macbeth, opera [Act 1.: "Sappia la sposa mia"]"

From 'Verdi: Macbeth'

By Various

Abbado first conducted Verdi at London's Covent Garden in 1968, quickly establishing himself as an important Verdi interpreter. The following year he became the resident conductor at Milan's La Scala, moving on to become music director two years later, and remaining with the company until 1986. There he invigorated the orchestra (refusing to record Verdi with any other group) and scored numerous successes, including highly praised recordings of Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth. There is a singular, singing Italianate quality in Abbado's Verdi, whether in bold confrontational scenes or, as in this excerpt from the Act 1 duet between Macbeth and his wife (just after the murder), intimate moments fraught with nervous energy.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.
Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.