Born in Milan, Italy, Abbado was the son of the violinist and composer Michelangelo Abbado, who was his first piano teacher, and the brother of the musician Marcello Abbado. He desired to become a conductor for the first time as a child, when he heard a performance of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes
. He 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. After studying piano, composition, and conducting at the Milan Conservatory at age 16, in 1955 he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. He also spent time at the Chigiana Academy in Siena. In 1958 he won the international Serge Koussevitsky Competition for conductors at the Tanglewood Music Festival, which resulted in a number of operatic conducting engagements in Italy, and in 1963 he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Prize for conductors, allowing him to work for five months with the New York Philharmonic.
Abbado made his debut at La Scala in his hometown of Milan in 1960 and served as its music director from 1968 to 1986, 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. 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 and became its principal conductor in 1971. He served as music director and conductor for the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, 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
.In 1965, Abbado made his British debut with the Halle Orchestra, followed in 1966 by his London Symphony Orchestra debut. He continued to conduct on a regular basis with the London orchestra and from 1979 to 1988 he was its principal conductor. From 1982 to 1986 he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With both orchestras, Abbado made recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Sony.
In 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic elected Abbado as its chief conductor to succeed Herbert von Karajan. In 1998, he announced that he would be leaving the Berlin Philharmonic after the expiration of his contract in 2002. Aside from the major institutions he directed, Abbado was often happiest with orchestras of his own creation - the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and the Orchestra Mozart.Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000 and the treatment led to the removal of a portion of his digestive system. 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. The Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic established the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize in 2006 in his honour.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.
After recovering from cancer, Abbado formed the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, whose concerts were highly acclaimed. 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, but two months later he resumed conducting with an engagement in Bologna. In July 2011, he said he was in good health.
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.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.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 (1986). 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. He was also known for his Germanic orchestral repertory as well as his interest in the music of Gioachino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi.
Abbado received many awards and recognitions including the Grand cross of the Légion d'honneur, Bundesverdienstkreuz, Imperial Prize of Japan, Mahler Medal, Khytera Prize, and honorary doctorates from the universities of Ferrara, Cambridge, Aberdeen and Havana.In 1973, Abbado won the Mozart Medal awarded by Mozartgemeinde Wien, and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1994.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, and in May of the same year, he was awarded the conductor prize at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards.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".
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. His nephew, Roberto Abbado (the son of his brother Marcello, born 1926, who is a composer and pianist), is also a conductor.Abbado died in Bologna on 20 January 2014 at the age of 80. 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.