ROME -- Carlo Maria Giulini, the 20th-century giant of conducting who considered himself a reverential servant of the great composers, died at age 91.
Mr. Giulini died Tuesday in Brescia in northern Italy, son Alberto Maria Giulini said yesterday.
Mr. Giulini's last permanent post was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, from 1978 until 1984, when he resigned to spend more time with his ailing wife. He also conducted at Milan's La Scala, the Chicago Symphony, and the Vienna Symphony.
A friend of the master Arturo Toscanini, who was impressed by one of his performances at the podium, Mr. Giulini spanned the golden age of conducting in the early decades of the 20th century and Italy's contemporary generation of maestros such as Riccardo Muti and Claudio Abbado.
In later years, Mr. Giulini stuck close to his home in Milan, conducting Europe's great orchestras but renouncing opera productions because of the long rehearsals.
Mr. Giulini's respect for the masters often produced an almost religious quality in his work.
In an interview for his 80th birthday, Mr. Giulini said: ''I have to believe in every note, to feel myself immersed. If that doesn't happen, mere technique would take the field. The appropriation (of the music) must be rational and emotional, without ever forgetting that the conductor is a musician in the service of the geniuses of music. . . . We are only interpreters."
''Giulini perceived the mystery of the art and spread it around with his refined technique and with the enthusiasm of an uncontaminated love for music," Italian state television RAI said yesterday in a tribute on its evening news.
In the years just after World War II, Mr. Giulini conducted the RAI state broadcasting orchestras of Milan and Rome.
Mr. Giulini led the 1944 concert in Rome that celebrated the city's liberation by Allied forces. It was his conducting debut.
Mr. Giulini studied viola at Rome's National Academy of Santa Cecilia. At 19, he won a viola position in the Santa Cecilia orchestra when it played in Rome's Teatro Augusteo. Because of the theater's acoustics, it was a regular stop for the superstar conductors. Mr. Giulini played under giants like Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Richard Strauss.
In his career, Mr. Giulini concentrated on Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Schubert. For opera, he preferred Mozart.
A modest, nearly ascetic man, he saw conducting as a priestly mission, a ministry for the gods of classical music. ''We have to deal with genius, and we are small men," he once said.
In Los Angeles, where he said his only friend was comedian Danny Kaye, his contract specifically exempted him from any part in the social whirl. ''I would underline that he was a servant of music, a man who did not worry about outward appearances," said Giorgio Gualerzi, an Italian music critic. ''He was devoted to the cause of music."
A number of Mr. Giulini's recordings, especially Verdi's ''Requiem" and ''Falstaff," are treasured by music buffs, and many Mozart lovers considered his ''Don Giovanni" the best ever. Critics also gave Mr. Giulini high praise for his sensitive accompanying on concerto recordings.
His performance of Hindemith's ''Mathis der Maler" is included in Boston Symphony Orchestra's CD, ''Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration."
Mr. Giulini's search for insight sometimes produced periods when he would stay away from the podium to find time to read, reflect, and study.
''Music is an act of love," he would say, dismissing ambition. Career? ''The word is repugnant to me," he told an interviewer. ''I'm not like a corporal who has to become a captain."
Born in Barletta, in the southeastern region of Puglia, on May 19, 1914, the conductor as a young man also studied violin.
During World War II, he went to the Yugoslav front with the Italian army. But he opposed Fascism and later went underground, hiding for nine months in a secret room in the house of his wife's uncle. A portrait of Mussolini hung on the wall outside.
The elderly Toscanini heard a Giulini performance and summoned him to his home. The two became friends, an important source of support for the budding young conductor.
Mr. Giulini recorded with major labels and won a Grammy in 1989.
Mr. Giulini's wife, Marcella, died in 1995. In addition to Alberto, an artist, they had two other sons: Francesco, who was his father's manager, and Stefano.