Claudio Abbado made his debut in 1960 at La Scala in Milan, later becoming its musical director, from 1968 to 1986. From 1986 to 1991 he was the musical director of the Staatsoper in Vienna, and in 1987 he became the Generalmusikdirektor of the city of Vienna.

In 1988 he founded the Festival Wien Modern, a contemporary music event which has grown over time to include different aspects of art. Since 1991 it has also included an international competition for young composers.

Abbado conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1966, and in 1989 he became the artistic director of the Orchestra. In 1994 he was appointed as artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival. In addition to opera productions and symphony concerts, he introduced a contemporary chamber music series, as well as composition and literary prizes.

Claudio Abbado has always supported young talent. In 1978 he founded the European Community Youth Orchestra, followed in 1981 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and in 1986 by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, from which the Mahler Chamber Orchestra emerged.

Since 2003 he has worked with the new Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which had originally been established especially for Arturo Toscanini before the war. He led the first series of concerts with the new orchestra in August 2003. The core elements of the orchestra come from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and are joined by key members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, the Sabine Meyer Ensemble, the Hagen Quartet and the Alban Berg Quarter, as well as internationally renowned soloists.

The Orchestra Mozart was founded in Bologna in 2004, with Abbado as its musical and artistic director. In November of the same year, at the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna, he was awarded the Kythera Prize, which he designated as scholarships for two young musicians from the new orchestra.

In 2005, in Caracas and Havana, Claudio Abbado began working with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which forms part of the great initiative which José Antonio Abreu has led for thirty years. It involves two hundred and fifty thousand young musicians, many of whom come from slums or very poor backgrounds, who have been given the chance to play instruments and get a decent education.

Claudio Abbado's recordings include the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravel and Prokofiev, as well as operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. In 2000 a complete edition of Beethoven's symphonies, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was released. This received great acclaim, as did the series of live performances of Beethoven's symphonies and piano concertos, which were recorded in Rome and Vienna in February 2001, and which were also released on DVD. Abbado's recordings have received important prizes, including the International Grammy Award, the Grand Prix International du Disque, the Diapason d'or, the Record Academy Prize, the Stella d'oro, the Orphée d'or and the Grand Prix de la Nouvelle Académie.

Abbado has received numerous awards, such as the Premio Freud, the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society, the Wiener Philharmoniker Nicolai Gold Medal (1980), the Mozart Medal, the Schubert Medal, the "Ehrenring" of the City of Vienna and the Premio Nonino (1999). The Republic of Italy awarded him the "Gran Croce Ordine al Merito" and the "Medaglia d'oro ai Benemeriti della cultura e dell'arte".

He has also received the French "Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur" and the Austrian "Grosse Goldenes Ehrenzeichen". In Germany he was awarded the "Ernst-von-Siemens-Musikpreis" and selected as "conductor of the year" by the German press in 2001, as well as being awarded the "Würth-Preis" of the Jeunesses Musicales and the "Kritikerpreis des Verbandes der deutschen Kritiker" from the German critics in 2002. The same year, as a result of his great artistic work in Berlin, the President of Germany presented him with "Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz mit Stern", the highest honour of the German state. In May 2004 he received the "Ernst Reutter Plakette" from the city of Berlin.

In 2003 he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, as well as the prestigious "Praemium Imperiale" from the Japan Arts Association and the "Franco Abbiati" prize from the Italian music critics. In 2006 he received the Yehudi Menhin Prize Award in Spain. He has been awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Cambridge, Aberdeen, Ferrara and Basilicata. Recently he was given honorary citizenship by the Municipality of Bologna.