Who was Claudio Abbado, and what did he contribute to orchestral music?

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Claudio Abbado (June 26, 1933 – January 20, 2014) was a remarkably versatile conduct of both orchestras and operas. He was known for taking on difficult and sometimes unpopular works such as those by Arthur Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio, in addition to works by more well-known and popular...

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Claudio Abbado (June 26, 1933 – January 20, 2014) was a remarkably versatile conduct of both orchestras and operas. He was known for taking on difficult and sometimes unpopular works such as those by Arthur Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio, in addition to works by more well-known and popular composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahams. In addition to conducting, Abbado also mentored young artists in the European Union, working with them in the companies he personally founded, the European Youth Orchestra and the Gustave Mahler Jugend Orchestra. Abbado’s concerts were usually thematic and combined different areas of the arts; one example was his combination of the Faustian legends with orchestral music. Abbado also served as the artistic director for the Salzburg Festival, which, like his own concerts, combines different forms of art. Prizes at the Salzburg Festival are awarded for excellence in these blended endeavors.

Born in Milan, Italy, Abaddo’s family was a musical one. Young Claudio was always surrounded by music: his father was a violinist, as was his sister, his mother a pianist, and his brother both a pianist and composer. Although World War II changed the family’s economic fortunes, Abbado remembers his childhood fondly, telling journalist Robertman Chester that the family “lived in trhee room, all full of music.”  

Claudio’s interest in music was further ignited following a visit to the La Scala opera house at age eight. Everything about the La Scala fascinated the young boy. In an interview with Stephen E. Rubin of the New York Times, Abbado recalled he “decided to become a conductor when I was eight.” He remembers “Antonio Guarnieri conducting the La Scala Orchestra.... After hearing his performance of Debussy's Nocturnes, I wrote in my diary, this is one piece I would like to conduct when I am old."

He meant it. After the concert, Claudio dedicated himself to learning how to play the piano; it wasn’t long until he was playing duets with his father: Claudio on piano and his father on violin. At age fifteen, he was making a modest income by playing organ at his church. Deciding to become a conductor, however, meant that he had to largely give up his other pursuits. From 1956 to 1958, he devoted himself to conducting full time, studying under Hans Swarowsky. The experience with Swarowsky made Abbado confident that he had selected the right profession.

In Vienna, Abbado met another future famous conductor, Zubin Metha. The two friends managed to find a way to audition for the closed-to-the-public auditions for the Muskiverein Chorus, and both were accepted into the brass section. This entry allowed Abbado and Metha to rehearse with renowned conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Bruno Walter.

In 1958, Abbado and Metha traveled to the United States, working that summer at the famous Tanglewood festival. During the competition, Abbado bested his friend Metha, winning the Serge Koussevitsky conducting prize. One feature of the prize was the offer to conduct an American orchestra, an offer Abbado declined. He decided that he wanted to continue studying in Europe.

For the next five years, Abbado did study, but he returned to the United States in 1963. That same year, he won another prize for conducting at the prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos competition. Despite his repeated success in the States, Abbado returned to Europe.

Now, back in Europe, Abbado’s career skyrocketed. The director of the RIAS Orchestra Berlin, Herbert von Karajan, invited Abbado to appear the Salzburg Festival (where he was the artistic director.). At Salzburg, Abbado directed the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. In 1965, he debuted of Giacomo Manzoni's Nuclear Death at La Scala. Conducting this symphony was a risky career move, as some people did not think it was right for La Scala, but Abbado shined. Three years later, in 1968, Claudio Abbado was appointed the principal, permanent conductor of La Scala; two years later, he was named its musical director as well. In addition to his duties at La Scala, Abbado made guest appearances at many other venues, becoming one of the busiest and most sought-after conductors of the 1970s.

While he conducted at many of the most famous and prestigious venues in the world, Abbado also made special efforts to bring classical music to people less likely to encounter it, including workers and students. He continued his hectic pace from the 1970s until the year 2000, when he became ill and had to undergo surgery for an intestinal ulcer. His work slowed after that. Claudio Abbado died on January 20, 2014, at his home in Bologna, Italy. He was 80 years old.

Source: Contemporary Musicians, ©2006 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

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Claudio Abbado was born in Milan, Italy, in 1933, and he just died this month--January 2014. He was the son of a violinist and composer, the nephew of another musician, brother and uncle to several composers, and father of an opera director. It is safe to say, then, that music was Abbado's life.

At the age of sixteen, after a short lifetime of music lessons from his father, Abbado entered the Milan Conservatory and then studied with several great musicians in several schools and conservatories around the world. He conducted his first official orchestra for the opera La Scala in Milan in 1960 and from then on consistently conducted as music director or as guest conductor for orchestras all over the world, including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was granted nearly every possible award for conducting, as well.

What was most notable about Abbado, however, was his unique approach to conducting and to orchestral music. While most conductors impose their will and preferences on their musicians, refusing to allow the slightest deviation from their own vision or interpretation, Abbado allowed the musicians in his orchestras great freedom to interpret the music as they saw fit. Not only did this quality make him one of the most well loved composers in modern times, but it produced unforgettable and moving music. The president of Deutsche Grammophon, a German recording company with whom Abbado and his orchestras recorded music for nearly fifty years, describes Abbado as

“a man who put himself entirely at the service of the music he conducted and, in doing so, made listeners feel that they were hearing it properly for the very first time.”

His approach to orchestral music was to make it accessible to the common man, both literally and musically. For example, he conducted many concerts for working-class people, and he both conducted and created new music which was designed to be more appealing to non-musicians. 

Another musical legacy which Abbado leaves behind him is his work with youth orchestras, such as the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. While of course Abbado enjoyed working with already established orchestras, he particularly enjoyed creating an orchestra out of musicians he appreciated, particularly young people at the beginning of their musical careers. Obviously these opportunities served to help establish the future generations of orchestra musicians. 

The post-mortem reflections on Abbado all suggest that he was as beloved as a person as he was as a musician, suggesting that his orchestral legacy of letting the music speak through the musicians is a model more conductors should consider adopting.

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Claudio Abbado, who passed away on January 20, 2014, was the long-time conductor of the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy, and one of the most well-respected conductors in the world.  A native of Milan, Abbado had stated that he decided to be an orchestra conductor at the age of 7 upon attending a performance of Debussy’s Three Nocturnes at La Scala.  Having achieved his goal of attaining the role of music director at the opera house, Abbado would remain in that position from 1968 until 1986.  In addition to his role at La Scala, Abbado also served as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic while performing as guest conductor of major orchestras all over the world.  The heir to the legendary Arturo Toscanini, Abbado became something of a legend himself in Italy and throughout the world of classical music.

Abbado was particularly known for his performances of Gustav Mahler – his first performance at La Scala in 1960 was of Mahler’s Symphony #2 ("Resurrection") and he conducted the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in addition to his more formal responsibilities – and tended to favor composers of the “Romantic” ilk.  He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000, yet, following major surgery to remove half of his digestive system, remained active and vibrant, including establishing the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.  As a conductor, Abbado was known for employing a more passive approach to managing his orchestras, using facial, mainly eye, movements to communicate to the musicians and emphasizing the audible aspect of performing, noting in a 2007 interview:

“It is one of the most important things:  all the musicians in the orchestra, they are listening to one another. . . I knew that you could get better music in a better way with this way of listening.” [“The Maestro,” The Guardian (UK), August 21, 2007]

In addition to his considerable contributions to the world of classical music, Abbado was known for his facility at assembling veritable “all-star” teams of musicians and melding the individual egos into a coherent unit. 

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