On Monday morning this week, the classical music world lost Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), a conductor whose work spanned performances from Baroque to contemporary music and whose activity ranged from La Scala in his native Milan to Chicago with important time in London, Berlin, Lucerne, Vienna, and finally his adopted city Bologna. Most of the obituaries in the North American press, with the honorable exceptions of the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times, concentrated on his familiar posts and achievements with little space devoted to the ongoing political and social commitment that Abbado displayed, sometimes at notable personal cost, over fifty years.
Coming to maturity in the artistic ferment and antifascist sentiment of postwar Milan, Abbado showed early on how music could be a symbol for democracy and resistance. In 1965, he conducted the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni’s opera Atomtod (“Atomic Death”), setting a vision of a post-nuclear holocaust world as a clear protest against atomic weapons and testing. In an eerie presentment of 21st-century privitized security, the only survivors of the catastrophe are those rich enough to have built their own fallout shelters, leaving the human race in worse shape than before. Abbado also conducted concerts at demonstrations against the rebirth of fascism and right-wing terrorism in the charged political situation of the time, in an attempt to bring both standard and contemporary works to the wider world of social protest. In the early 1970s, he brought the Scala’s orchestra (playing fairly standard repertory) to a series of factory concerts aimed at the militant workforce in some of Milan’s largest plants. As well-intentioned as this project, sponsored by officials of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Socialist Party (PSI), might have been, the recent work of my Italian colleague Siel Agugliaro has highlighted its inherent limits and lack of lasting effect due to the organizers’ top-down approach to introducing workers to classical music.
In retrospect, one of the great features of the European left in the early 1970s was its conviction that even the most experimental art could not only be relevant to political protest but also accessible to audiences trained and untrained. Abbado’s long-term collaboration with his composer friend Luigi Nono (1924-1990) resulted in the first performances of some important pieces, heard too little, alas, in North America. Inspired by the untimely 1971 death of a leader of Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), Luciano Cruz, Nono composed a large-scale lament for voice, piano (here the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini), orchestra, and magnetic tape, Como una ola de fuerza y luz, which deals not only with the loss of young militants but also with the difficulty of organizing and struggle (as Paulo de Assis’ study of the source materials has revealed that the piece’s program was actually more detailed than the public commentary that Nono released). Abbado conducted its premiere in fall 1973, just after Pinochet’s coup, and the piece became a vehicle for the massive European protests against what had happened in Chile.
Two years later, he also led the premiere of Nono’s opera Al gran sole carico d’amore (“Under the large sun filled with love”), a portrayal of revolutionary heroines from the Paris Commune to the national liberation struggles of the 1960s. The conductor’s ties to Nono remained strong, as he also did the first performance of Nono’s music-theater piece Prometeo (“Prometheus”) a decade later. Still, the 1980s marked the beginning of a slow decline for the Italian Left, a process that continues to this day, as the ultimate successor to part of the PCI, the Democratic Party (PD), is now led by the fervently neoliberal party secretary Matteo Renzi.
The decade was also not good for Milan, with the city run by the bribe-driven PSI; Abbado left La Scala in 1993, and devoted much time to his new post at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra after 1989. But even here, Abbado brought internal democracy to the ensemble, and he reacted to the first wave of xenophobia in the newly-unified country by bringing the musicians on board for a 1992 program of Nono’s Il canto sospeso (“The interrupted song”, set to texts by prisoners condemned to death under the Nazis) and Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a concert (still available on CD) that demanded tolerance and opposed any kind of racism. The contrast with his predecessor, former Nazi Party member Herbert von Karajan, could not have been stronger.
As the years went on, the political options became more limited, and Abbado’s own health became more dicey. He must also have been saddened by the distance of his native city, a place that can be hard even on its heroes and heroines. In an odd parallel, his four years as guest conductor here in Chicago from 1982 to 1986 (including some wonderful recordings) also ultimately led to nothing, as he did not become the chief conductor, and, in what can most charitably be described as short-sighted programming on the part of the orchestra’s administrative team of the time, was not invited back, even as a guest, after 1992. Thus one for the most part had to catch his performances outside Milan or Chicago, elsewhere in Europe or on CD.
Even in the years of his dicey health, his social commitment did not stop. He made his return to La Scala contingent on the city’s planting some 90,000 trees, a necessity for one of the least green cities of Europe; this plan was sabotaged by the right-wing city administration of the time. He worked with young musicians by founding various ensembles, including the period-instrument Orchestra Mozart, and conducted concerts to benefit his adopted region of Emilia-Romagna after the 2012 earthquake that damaged part of the area. In 2013, he was made a life senator, the first musician in postwar Italy to achieve this post, and used the occasion to denounce former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media monopoly and its ruinous effects on Italian culture. In a moment of sickening irony, the day that he died also featured the announcement of a deal cut by Renzi and Berlusconi (totally bypassing Parliament) for a new electoral law that would eliminate as currently constituted the same Senate of which Abbado was a member, a chamber that had been envisioned by the writers of the 1947 antifascist constitution as a bulwark against any possible return to right-wing dictatorship. In addition, if the Renzi/Berlusconi law would pass, its awarding of a 15/20% premium to any party with 35% of the vote and its raising the threshold for smaller parties to be represented in the Chamber of Deputies would also have the effect of making Renzi’s PD and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party the major parliamentary players in the country, and eliminate any possibilities to the left of the PD.
As Abbado’s death was announced, I woke up to his 2007 recording, played on Chicago’s WFMT, of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola K. 364. The slow movement of this piece is one of the great moments of sadness and pain in the composer’s output, and in Abbado’s interpretation, the soloists Giuliano Carmignola and Danusha Waskiewicz play their heart out, while the conductor thinks through every phrase afresh, differentiated each one as if the music had been composed yesterday. The sense of loss at Abbado’s passing was obviously shared by the hundreds in Bologna who lined up to pay their last respects in the days following, and the sheer distance from those seemingly wonderful days of the early 70s–when creation, politics, and art seemed to be so much closer and more doable–was also painfully evident. But Abbado would have wanted to keep fighting, and perhaps the best epitaph for him is a 1980 prose poem by another great figure whom we have lost in recent days, the Argentinian poet and opponent of Videla’s dictatorship Juan Gelman (1930-2014). Gelman’s “Los ilusos” reads (in my rough translation): “Often hope fails us, but pain never does. So some people think that an already-known pain is worth more than the pain of discovering. They think that hope is an illusion, but they themselves are deluded by pain”.
Robert L. Kendrick teaches music history and ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. His books include Celestial Sirens; The Sounds of Milan, 1585-1650; and the forthcoming Singing Jeremiah: Music and Meaning in Holy Week (Indiana University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com