This Week in Music History: Claudio Abbado dies (2014)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

He said to me a few years ago, “Simon, my illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!”

Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado’s successor as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, recalled this conversation in a tribute he wrote after Abbado’s death on January 20, 2014. “Always a great conductor, his performances in these last years were transcendent, and we all feel privileged to have witnessed them,” Rattle added.

Abbado’s death in 2014 came after a long illness, but he had almost lost his life to stomach cancer years earlier, around the turn of the millennium. His return to conducting after that illness became the brilliant culmination of a career that stretched back as far as the 1950s.

Abbado was born in June 1933 in Milan to a musical family. In 1949 Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in Milan in which Abbado’s father was the violin soloist, and the American told him he had “a conductor’s eyes.” He later caught the attention of Herbert von Karajan as well, who arranged his first Berlin Philharmonic concert in 1966.

Thirty-three years later, Abbado would conduct the orchestra—which, by then, he directed—in a concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Karajan’s death, with Mozart’s Requiem on the program.

Abbado had succeeded Karajan as that orchestra’s music director in 1989, by which time he had already held many positions with leading orchestras and opera houses, including La Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera. He had also established himself as a passionate founder of orchestras, including the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, some of whose alumni later became the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He became artistic director of the newly founded Orchestra Mozart in 2003.

The most legendary ensemble he created also dated from these later years. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra comprised players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, numerous principals from some of the world’s top orchestras, and esteemed chamber musicians: an orchestral “supergroup” whose aim was to create music with the intimacy and detail of chamber music—a cherished goal of Abbado’s.

Abbado at the Lucerne Festival, © Peter Fischli

The Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s concerts were astonishing events, drawing superlative reviews and holding audiences captive. Mahler, a composer close to Abbado’s heart, featured prominently, and the orchestra’s 2010 performance of the Ninth Symphony is already the stuff of legend. “I cannot be alone in unhesitatingly naming [it] the greatest concert that I have ever heard,” wrote David Nice in his Guardian obituary. The audience was held spellbound for several minutes even after the final notes. “There is such a thing as a loud silence,” wrote Tom Service:

Mahler’s Ninth is a work closely involved with death, but which also seems to evoke the beyond. Abbado accomplished many wonderful things over his long career. But this magical event is worthy to be called one of his best.

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