Abbado was born in Milan in 1933. He studied piano at the Milan Conservatory with his father Michelangelo Abbado, and went on to study conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1958, he won the Koussevitsky Competition, establishing him in Italy. He began working at La Scala in 1960 and remained there as musical director until 1986: his extensive discography includes a series of landmark Verdi recordings with his Milanese forces.
Abbado was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1988, and the following year he succeeded Herbert von Karajan as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post from which he stepped down in 2002. His later years were dominated by his work with his Orchestra Mozart and with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which he reincarnated in 2003: their live recordings of the Mahler symphonies are widely regarded as some of the finest accounts on record. Abbado died on 20th January 2014 following a lengthy battle with stomach cancer.