Abravanel was born in Saloniki (Thessalonica), Greece when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. He came from an illustrious Sephardic Jewish family, which was expelled from Spain in 1492. Abravanel's ancestors settled in Saloniki in 1517, and his parents were both born there. In 1909, they moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where his father Edouard de Abravanel was a very successful pharmacist.
For several years, the Abravanels lived in the same house as Ernest Ansermet, the conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The young Abravanel played four-hand piano arrangements with Ansermet, began to compose, and met such composers as Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky. He was passionate about music and knew he wanted a career as a musician. He became the pianist for the municipal theater and music critic for the daily paper.
Maurice's father, however, insisted on a career in medicine and sent him to the University of Zürich, where he was miserable, having to dissect corpses. He wrote his father that he would rather be second percussionist in an orchestra than a doctor, and his father finally relented.
In 1922, during the depths of the depression of the Weimar Republic, Abravanel went to Berlin. Despite the difficult economic situation, Berlin supported three opera houses, which staged performances every night of the year. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss, and Otto Klemperer were all conducting opera in Berlin at this time.
Abravanel became a student of the composer Kurt Weill, who had to accept up to 46 students to make ends meet. After a year of study, Maurice landed a job as an accompanist at the opera in Neustrelitz, just north of Berlin. He was only 20. At the time, this was a good career path towards becoming a conductor because the accompanist had rehearsed and coached the singers and would sometimes be called on to substitute when the conductor was unable to conduct at short notice.
In 1924, the theater in Neustrelitz burned down, and the four conductors found work elsewhere. The members of the orchestra asked Abravanel if he would conduct performances at the castle. He conducted orchestra concerts twice a week at the castle with no rehearsal. He even received some pay.
In 1925, Abravanel received a position as choral director in Zwickau, in Saxony. He spent two years there, conducting the operetta repertoire. Because of his success in Zwickau, he was given a position as regular conductor at a better theater in Altenburg.
In Altenburg, he auditioned a young singer whose name was Friedel Schako, the daughter of the noted soprano Hedwig Schako. She was to become his wife. She later converted to Catholicism and changed her name to Marie.
After two years in Altenburg, Abravanel was appointed conductor at his first major opera house in Kassel. In 1931, the director of the Berlin State Opera saw him conduct a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's La forza del destino. He asked him to come to Berlin and conduct a performance at the Berlin State Opera. He was only 27. The orchestra was impressed and applauded Abravanel. This was important because at that time the orchestra decided whether a guest conductor would be asked to return. Abravanel became a regular guest conductor.
Because of the rise of Adolf Hitler, prominent Jewish musicians were being forced to leave Germany. Abravanel went to Paris with Kurt Weill in 1933.
In Paris, he worked with Bruno Walter. Walter was a friend of and authority on the music of Gustav Mahler. Walter recommended Abravanel as a guest conductor at the Paris Opera, and he was able to cast, rehearse, and conduct Mozart's Don Giovanni there. He also had the opportunity to conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, the regular conductor of which was Pierre Monteux.
He also met George Balanchine in Paris and conducted his ballets, as well as conducting the works of his old teacher and friend, Kurt Weill.
In 1933, anti-German sentiment forced Kurt Weill to leave for New York. The Abravanels left soon after, in 1934, for Australia. Maurice had been offered a chance to direct both the Melbourne and the Sydney opera. After a six-week journey through the Suez and across the Indian Ocean, he arrived to be acclaimed as the "eminent continental conducter." He was only 31.
He conducted a 13-week season in Melbourne and a two-month season in Sidney with Verdi's Aida as the opener in both cities and a balanced selection of the standard repertoire, including Puccini, Wagner, and Bizet.
In mid-spring of 1936, he received an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to come and conduct the German and French repertoire. He was offered a three-year contract.
He also conducted Kurt Weill's productions on Broadway. When Abravanel went to Utah, he knew that he wanted to build a permanent orchestra of his own. He became the long-time conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, building it from a part-time community orchestra into a well-respected, professional ensemble with recording contracts with Vanguard, Vox, Angel, and CBS. He lobbied for years for a permanent home for the orchestra, which then performed in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square. He saw his dream come true when Symphony Hall was built, but not until the season after he retired. It has now been renamed Abravanel Hall in his honor.
Abravanel also directed the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where young musicians gathered for summer music camps. He taught conducting at Tanglewood, where he was appointed artist-in-residence for life.
Abravanel died in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the age of 90.