The Magic of the Past

Claudio Abbado’s Musical Estate in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

Claudio Abbado 1973
(Photo: bpk/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek/Felicitas Timpe)

The music department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin [Berlin State Library] has held the musical estates of the first three chief conductors of the Berliner Philharmoniker for many years – Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The collection was recently expanded with the musical legacy of another chief conductor: Claudio Abbado. It is a generous gift, donated to the Staatsbibliothek by the Fondazione Claudio Abbado [Claudio Abbado Foundation], which was established in Milan by the conductor’s heirs. The estate includes approximately 1,700 scores, handwritten notes, numerous audio and video recordings, musicological literature and an extensive collection of letters.

First letter of recommendation

One of the oldest documents is the copy of a letter of recommendation from Herbert von Karajan to the director of the Hamburg State Opera, Rolf Liebermann, in August 1965. “I feel obliged to inform you about the young Italian conductor Claudio Abbado,” Karajan begins. “He is beyond doubt the greatest talent I am aware of today. In front of the orchestra he is as assured as if he had been conducting for 20 years already.” Abbado’s correspondence with his colleague Carlos Kleiber is both amusing and moving. In May 1976 Kleiber wrote to “dear Claudio” from Munich: “I’m sitting here in a hotel across from the Bürgerbräu [a large beer hall], where Hitler had his bomb affair. We’re making a Traviata recording, molto merdoso [very shitty]. Claudio, I wanted to thank you again, and Gabriella as well, for your hospitality and kindness in Milan, and that you didn’t let me leave during Rosenkavalier. Your trust is very important to me.”

Correspondence with great artists

Claudio Abbado interceded on behalf of Carlos Kleiber many times. In autumn 1995 he wanted to help his capricious friend procure the position as conductor in residence at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin [Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin]. At Abbado’s request, Wolf Lepenies, the rector of the institute, sent Kleiber a charming invitation but received an emphatic rejection: “Since I have absolutely nothing to contribute – apart from being able to listen to other people – I must definitely refuse.” The correspondence with Rudolf Serkin is characterized by mutual admiration; the pianist, a good 30 years older, repeatedly thanked Abbado for the concerts and for the friendly collaboration. Abbado’s answer was no less emotional – copies of these letters are also part of the collection. Several folders contain letters from fans all over the world. Some individuals exuberantly thanked Abbado for a particular concert he conducted; other letters, on the other hand, have a strange character.

A glimpse of Abbado’s conducting studio

The most interesting part of the collection for musicians is Claudio Abbado’s conducting scores. On the inside of each volume Abbado painstakingly noted every performance venue and date with pencil. Abbado marked the scores themselves with countless handwritten indications of dynamics, tempo and articulation. The small “conducting slips” which the maestro prepared for every work are also extremely valuable. Scarcely larger than a cigarette packet, they contain Abbado’s basic idea of the particular composition with a few words, brief outlines and symbols. It must be assumed, however, that only musicians who knew him very well could understand immediately what is meant.


Documents and exhibits from Claudio Abbado’s musical estate will be displayed for the first time in the exhibition “Claudio Abbado – Lebenswege [Life’s Journey]”, which can be viewed in the foyer of the Philharmonie from 20 January in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the conductor’s death. The exhibits will be augmented by documents and photographs from the archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

This text is the abridged version of an article by Oliver Hilmes for the magazine 128 (volume 04/2018). Copies of the issue are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop

Claudio Abbado’s conducting score of Mahler’s First Symphony
(Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

Signing the contract in 1990: Claudio Abbado and Culture Senator Anke Martiny
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
Friends for life: Claudio Abbado, Maurizio Pollini, Zubin Mehta and Yehudi Menuhin
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
1994: Claudio Abbado and György Kurtág at rehearsals of "Stele"
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
During a rehearsal
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)