He was an orchestral conductor and pianist born in Thessalonica, Greece as a descendent of Sephardic Jews that were expelled from Spain in 1492. His father, Edouard de Abravanel was a pharmacist highly thought of in his field, and in 1909 he and his family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland.
He learned to play piano as a child and living in the same house as the conductor Ernest Ansermet, they would play four-hand arrangements for the piano. Surrounded by music he started composing and was fortunate to meet Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, which cemented his thoughts for making it his career. Although he played the piano for a newspaper music critic and the municipal theatre his father sent him to the University of Zurich to study medicine instead.
After several pleas to his father over the course of his time there, he was eventually allowed to leave to concentrate on music, and he travelled to Berlin in 1922 where he became a pupil of Kurt Weill. He took the job as an accompanist at the opera and he would occasionally be called upon to take over from the resident conductor. After the opera burned down he was asked to conduct concerts at the castle and he would do this unrehearsed twice weekly.
In 1925 he took the post of choral conductor in Zwickau, Saxony, and after his work was recognised he moved to Altenberg where he stayed for two years until another move to Kassel. At last he was becoming respected and he was invited to lead the orchestra at the Berlin Opera House, where his performance was so impressive that the orchestra applauded him and he was often asked to return as a guest conductor.
He went to Paris with Kurt Weill in 1933 after being forced to leave Germany and he was recommended as a guest conductor at the Paris Opera. In 1934 he moved to Australia to conduct the Melbourne and Sydney operas and in 1936 he was asked to conduct the New York Metropolitan Opera on a three-year contract.
In 1947 he was chosen from 40 candidates to lead the Utah Symphony Orchestra and through him they changed from being a part-time ensemble to a professional group who would tour and make numerous recordings.
Also directing the Music Academy of the West and being the lifetime artist-in-residence at Tanglewood, he retired in 1979 with the Abravanel Hall, which he had campaigned for, being named in his honour.
A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1991, he passed away in 1993 in Salt Lake City when he was 90 years old.