Claudio Abbado, who decided to become a conductor after hearing a concert at La Scala at the age of eight and went on to lead the Milan opera company and top orchestras for more than half a century, has died aged 80, La Scala said on Monday.
Abbado, who was known as a musician's musician, shunned the publicity and pomp often associated with leading conductors and staunchly supported young musicians. He died in the northern city of Bologna in his native Italy after a long illness.
"We have lost one of the greatest musicians of the last 50 years and one of the very few to have a close connection with the spirit of music in all its various forms," La Scala's current musical director, Daniel Barenboim, said in a statement.
"He set an example for the world, showing that young and inexperienced musicians can make music at the highest level when they work with the right attitude and commitment. We owe him this, and much more."
In addition to serving as music director of La Scala for two decades, Abbado led the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and made guest appearances throughout the world.
"The world of music and culture has lost an absolute champion," Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said.
"At his concerts there were breathtaking occasions for the audience and players alike," Lennox Mackenzie, a violinist and orchestra chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), where Abbado was principal conductor from 1979-1988, told Reuters. "I remember some players actually being in tears."
Milan mayor Giuliano Pisapia said he would ask Barenboim to organize a memorial concert for Abbado, who was named an Italian Senator for Life by President Giorgio Napolitano last August.
Abbado's surprise appointment as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989 led music critics to call him "the world's most powerful conductor". He also had a 46-year span recording some of the world's most cherished performances for the Deutsche Grammophon label.
Mark Wilkinson, President of Deutsche Grammophon, said: "The world has lost one of the most inspiring musicians of our era, a man who put himself entirely at the service of the music he conducted and, in doing so, made listeners feel that they were hearing it properly for the very first time."
Abbado's recordings were honored in the classical music category at the Grammy Awards, where pieces he conducted won gongs in 1998, 2004 and 2006.