Abbado was born in Milan, Italy. His father played the violin and composed. He started to learn the piano from his father. He studied music at the Milan Conservatory and often had the opportunity to listen to famous conductors rehearsing, e.g. Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler. He did not like the way that Toscanini shouted and yelled at the orchestra. He knew that he did not want to be like him.
He studied conducting at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1958, he won the international Koussevitsky competition for conductors. Soon he was invited to conduct in many parts of Italy. In 1963 he won the Dmitri Mitropoulos Competition for conductors. This allowed him to work for five months with the New York Philharmonic.
He first conducted at La Scala in Milan in 1960. He was music director there from 1968 to 1986. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1965 in a concert at the Salzburg Festival. He was music director for the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, where he conducted traditional operas as well as new, 20th-century operas.
He was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1987. In the US, he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1986. With both orchestras, Abbado made a number of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.
In 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chose Abbado to be their conductor, to succeed Herbert von Karajan. Abbado stayed with them until 2002 when he left because of his bad health, although he returned in 2004 to make several recordings with them.
Abbado has conducted a lot of Romantic music, especially the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. He has conducted many modern works such as Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Giacomo Manzoni, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Thomas Adler, Giovanni Sollima, Roberto Carnevale, Franco Donatoni and George Benjamin.
In 1988, he started the music festival Wien Modern (Vienna Modern). This festival is now not just for modern music but other forms of modern art as well.
Abbado is also well known for his work with young musicians. He started the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1978 and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) in 1986. He often conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and has recently worked with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela. Abbado was found to have stomach cancer in 2000 and he had a major operation. After he got better he started the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003. He is also music director of the Mozart Orchestra of Bologna, Italy.
Abbado's son Daniele is an opera-director. From his relationship with the violinist Viktoria Mullova, he is the father of her oldest child, Misha. His nephew Roberto Abbado is also a conductor.
- "Claudio Abbado (Conductor)- Short Biography". Bach Cantatas. Retrieved 01 January 2013. Check date values in:
- "Claudio Abbado, renowned Italian conductor, dies at 80". BBC News. 20 January 2014. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
- "La morte di Claudio Abbado". Il Post (in Italian). 20 January 2014. Retrieved 22 January 2014.