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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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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.