(b. 6 January 1903 in Salonika, Greece; d. 22 September 1993 in Salt Lake City, Utah), conductor and teacher best known as the longtime music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra.
Abravanel was the youngest of four children of Edouard de Abravanel, a pharmacist, and Rachel Bitty, a homemaker. Edouard descended from an old Sephardic Jewish family, originally of Spain but resident in Salonika since 1517. Maurice moved with his family to Lausanne, Switzerland, when he was five years old. He began studying piano at age nine and by his late teens was performing at a local theater and writing music criticism for a local newspaper. His father wished him to become a physician and he accordingly studied at the Lausanne Gymnasium (secondary school) from 1917 to 1919, the University of Lausanne from 1919 to 1921, and the University of Zurich from 1921 to 1922. However, by 1922 he had decided that he wanted to be a musician and moved to Berlin, Germany. There he studied harmony and counterpoint with the composer Kurt Weill in 1922 and 1923, beginning a friendship of great importance to his professional life.
In 1924 Abravanel became a singers’ coach at the Neustrelitz Opera. He became choral director of the Zwickau Opera in 1925. In 1927 he became a regular conductor at the Altenburg Opera and married a singer, Friedel Schacko. He had his first major engagement on 17 January 1931 when he guest-conducted Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) at the Berlin State Opera. His success led to numerous other guest performances at the State Opera. He left Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
Abravanel served as assistant to the renowned German-born conductor Bruno Walter at the Paris Opéra and also guest-conducted the Paris Symphony Orchestra. He became the music director of George Balanchine’s Les Ballets 1933 and in that capacity commissioned and conducted the premiere performance of Kurt Weill’s ballet Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1933). He spent most of the years between 1934 and 1936 in Australia, conducting operas in Melbourne and Sydney and originating regular series of symphony orchestra concerts in both cities.
In late 1936 Abravanel came to the United States under a three-year contract to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He was the youngest conductor in the history of the Met. He made his American debut with Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila on 6 December 1936. For the next two years he conducted numerous performances of French and German operas at the Met. He resigned at the end of his second year, however, when the opportunity came to conduct Kurt Weill’s musical play Knickerbocker Holiday on Broadway in 1938. (Broadway was still doing well during the Great Depression, while the Met was experiencing a severe retrenchment.) That same year, Abravanel and his wife separated; they were divorced in 1940. He continued as a conductor of Broadway shows until 1947, leading premiere performances of Weill’s Lady in the Dark (1940), One Touch of Venus (1943), and Street Scene (1947). He became an American citizen in 1943.
In June 1947 Abravanel signed a contract to conduct the Utah Symphony Orchestra, based in Salt Lake City, because he wanted to build a superior musical organization as a full-time music director—an opportunity he did not have in Berlin, New York, or Paris. On 20 September of that year he married Lucy Menasse Carasso, a widow with two young sons.
The Utah Symphony, founded in 1940, had become an orchestra composed entirely of professional musicians only during the 1946–1947 season. Due to the symphony’s inability to provide full-time work for its musicians in those early years, most of the players held daytime jobs outside the orchestra for the first two decades of its operation. The organization suffered a severe financial crisis, almost resulting in bankruptcy, years between 1934 and 1936 in Australia season. Abravanel, with the support of civic leaders of Salt Lake City, officials of the Mormon Church, and the ensemble’s board of directors, became the driving force in creating financial stability, vastly expanding the orchestra’s activities. He also worked toward achieving a full fifty-two weeks of employment per year for the musicians (finally accomplished in 1980). As conductor, he both attracted and recruited new musicians to the orchestra.
Abravanel, in his lengthy tenure with the Utah Symphony, drilled the orchestra into a precise and flexible ensemble capable of performing the entire classical repertoire. He continually increased the number of concerts in Salt Lake City, in other cities and towns in Utah, and in surrounding states. Over considerable opposition he insisted on including twentieth-century music in the orchestra’s programs. He forged strong alliances between the orchestra and both the University of Utah and the Mormon Church (the ensemble played all of its Salt Lake City concerts in the Mormon Tabernacle). The orchestra and Abravanel became widely known both in the United States and abroad through a total of 111 recordings, made between 1952 and 1978. Among them were a widely acclaimed series of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, as well as the complete symphonies of Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky. Under Abravanel’s direction the orchestra made tours to Europe in 1966, 1975, and 1977, and to South America in 1971, receiving largely favorable reviews. The ensemble also toured widely in the western United States. In addition to his work with the Utah Symphony, Abravanel spent his summers from 1955 to 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, where he was music director of the Music Academy of the West, a school for advanced vocal and instrumental students.
Abravanel underwent open-heart surgery on 29 November 1976. By mid-February 1977 he had returned to the podium and conducted the remainder of the Utah Symphony’s season. He then led the orchestra on a lengthy European tour in the fall of 1977, followed by another strenuous winter season in 1977–1978. Worn down by ill health and strain, he conducted fewer concerts in 1978–1979 and submitted his resignation on 6 April 1979. He conducted his last concert in Salt Lake City on 21 April of that year. In 1982 he taught conducting at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He returned to Tanglewood every summer until his death, holding the title “artist in residence” and serving as an informal mentor to the students there. Lucy Abravanel died in 1985; on 2 July 1986 he married Carolyn Chaney Firmage at Tanglewood. He died of natural causes in 1993 in Salt Lake City.
Abravanel conducted the Utah Symphony Orchestra for thirty-two years, a tenure exceeded only by Eugene Ormondy’s forty-four years with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His great achievement was to build a fine symphonic ensemble almost from scratch in an area far removed from the major urban centers of the United States.
The papers of Maurice Abravanel are in the Special Collections Department of the University of Utah Marriott Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Karin Hardy, Register of the Papers of Maurice Abravanel (1903- ) (1988), is an excellent, well-indexed guide to this collection. The only biography, written by a longtime friend and professional associate, is Lowell M. Durham, Abravanell (1989). Ronald Sanders, The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of Kurt Weill (1980), discusses Weill’s lengthy friendship and professional collaboration with Abravanel. Andrew L. Pincus, Tanglewood: The Clash Between Tradition and Change (1998), briefly describes Abravanel’s special relationship with that institution. Robert R. Craven, ed., Symphony Orchestras of the United States: Selected Profiles (1986), includes a useful sketch of the history of the Utah Symphony Orchestra. An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Sept. 1993).
John E. Little