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After finishing his school studies at the Frankfort Gymnasium, Abendroth traveled to Munich and at the wish of his father undertook the first year of an apprenticeship as a book dealer, but he then switched to studying music at the conservatory of Munich, the Münchner Konservatorium, from 1900 to 1903, studying theory and composition with Ludwig Thuille, piano with Anna Hirtzel-Langenham, and developing his conducting skills working with Felix Mottl.
Still an undergraduate, Hermann Abendroth's first stable assignment of conducting was from 1903 to 1904, for the Orchestral Society of Munich. From 1905 to 1911, he moved to Lübeck, highlighting as the Kapellmeister of the Theater Lübeck. From 1911 to 1914, he was the Generalmusikdirektor (General music director) of the city of Essen.
From 1915 to 1934 he was the Kapellmeister of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, and then also director of the Cologne Conservatory (1925–1934), which was reformed with his help, to become the Cologne Musikhochschule. He also became the general music director of Cologne in 1918, and was a professor in 1919. He also was the general music director of Bonn, from 1930 to 1933.
In 1922, Abendroth was the director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival. He was invited to conduct in other countries as well, and visited the USSR and conducted the USSR-State Symphony Orchestra in 1925, 1927 and 1928. From 1926 to 1937, he visited England and regularly conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.
Abendroth is known for performing classical and romantic compositions, including Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. Nonetheless, he conducted other contemporary pieces in their premieres, for instance for Bartok and Stravinsky.
In 1934, the Nazi Party seized the city council of Cologne, and the liberally minded Abendroth was promptly removed from the public function and detained. Nonetheless, other personalities of the arts interceded, and Abendroth was restituted into the public function, to head the department of education of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer. Accepting such charge, Abendroth was criticized for relinquishing his ideals. Nevertheless, he formally joined the Nazi Party in 1937.
In 1934, Hermann Abendroth was appointed Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, replacing Bruno Walter, who was dismissed by the newly installed Nazi authorities because of being Jewish. From 1934 to 1945, Abendroth also was professor of the Leipzig conservatory (1941-1945 Leipzig Musikhochschule). In 1943 and 1944, he took part in the traditional Bayreuth Festival, conducting Die Meistersinger, its only opera for those two years. Adolf Hitler officialized and organized the festivity.
After World War II, the Communist new authorities of Saxony rescinded all Abendroth's contracts of Leipzig, and so - with his past of the Nazi Party - he wouldn't manage to get a new stable position anywhere else in Germany either. Abendroth then claimed that he had never attended any political meeting, and his fortune then would change at Thuringia, whose government appointed Abendroth for music director of Weimar from 1945 to 1956. In 1950 and 1954, Abendroth was elected the People's Chamber of the GDR for a four-year mandate ending in 1954 as a representative of the Cultural Association of the GDR.
Such opportunity would help cleansing Abendroth's name, about his Nazi past, and so he returned to Leipzig, in charge of its Radio Symphony Orchestra, from 1949 to 1956. As Abendroth, a heavy smoker, was becoming a prominent artist of East Germany, he was the only person allowed to smoke within the building of the radio station of Leipzig, by the Communist authorities.
Abendroth toured throughout the Communist Europe. He was the first German, invited to conduct in the Soviet Union after the war-, and also toured Finland and Switzerland. In 1951, he conducted for the Prague Spring International Music Festival. From 1953 to 1956 he conducted Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (East Berlin).
Ironically, such new celebrity status of Abendroth awoke suspicion about his new political affinity, and some locations of West Germany banned his presentations -such as in Düsseldorf- and the release of Abendroth's records on the Eterna label was quite limited in Western Europe.
Abendroth was amongst the first German music directors who released studio records regularly. His production spanned from mid-1920s, until his death.
Nowadays, Abendroth is being successfully rediscovered by a collection of CDs, published since mid-1990s, consisting mainly of his works for the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Leipzig of since 1953.
| Kapellmeister, Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne