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José Antonio Abreu

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José Antonio Abreu
Abreu (2007)
José Antonio Abreu Anselmi

(1939-05-07)May 7, 1939
Valera, Venezuela
DiedMarch 24, 2018(2018-03-24) (aged 78)
Caracas, Venezuela
Alma materUniversidad Católica Andres Bello
Occupation(s)Orchestra conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist, politician
Known forFounder of El Sistema
AwardsRight Livelihood Award

José Antonio Abreu Anselmi (May 7, 1939 – March 24, 2018)[1] was a Venezuelan orchestra conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist, and politician best known for his association with El Sistema. He was honored with the 2009 Latin Grammy Trustees Award, an honor given to people who have contributed to music by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Politics and academics[edit]

Born in the small Andean city of Valera,[2] Abreu graduated with a summa cum laude as an economist at Universidad Católica Andres Bello in Caracas.[3] For many years, his official biography stated that he had been awarded a PhD degree in Petroleum Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, but El Sistema withdrew this claim in December 2017.[4][5] He was elected as a deputy at the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela in 1963. He served as director of planning at Cordiplan. After his political career, he also worked as a professor of economics and law at Universidad Simón Bolívar and his alma mater. He would return to politics in 1988 to serve as Minister of Culture[6] and president of the National Council of Culture, posts he held until 1993 and 1994, respectively.[7]


Abreu moved to Caracas in 1957 to study composition.[2] Abreu later studied music with Doralisa Jiménez de Medina in Barquisimeto. Later, he attended the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy in 1957, where he studied piano with Moisés Moleiro, organ and harpsichord with Evencio Castellanos, and composition with Vicente Emilio Sojo.[8] In 1967, he received the Symphonic Music National Prize for his musical ability.[9] It was in 1975 that he founded El Sistema,[3] formally known as the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela.

This was an innovative youth education method in which music was the primary avenue for social and intellectual improvement. He received the National Music Prize for this work at El Sistema in 1979. Under Abreu's guidance, El Sistema has participated in exchange and cooperation programmes with Canada, Spain, Latin American countries and the United States.

Abreu was the founder of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.[3]


Abreu was the teacher to several generations of Venezuelan classical music performers, including Gustavo Dudamel, the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.[10]

Awards and recognition[edit]

In 1993, El Sistema was awarded the famous IMC-UNESCO International Music Prize in the institution class.[11] UNESCO also appointed Abreu as a Special Ambassador for the Development of a Global Network of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs in 1995[12] and as a special representative for the development of network of orchestras within the framework of UNESCO's "World Movement of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs". This project was created in the context of an inter-disciplinary project "Towards a Culture of Peace". He co-ordinates the programme through the UNESCO office in Caracas. He was also designated a Goodwill Ambassador by UNESCO in 1998.[13]

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall with Gustavo Dudamel

In 2001, Abreu was honoured with a Right Livelihood Award and was honored with the World Culture Open Creative Arts Award in 2004.[14] Among his numerous awards are the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon (Japan, 2007),[15] the Glenn Gould Prize (Canada, 2008), the Puccini International Prize (Italy, 2008), the Q Prize with former student and protégé Gustavo Dudamel (USA, 2008) and honorary memberships at the Royal Philharmonic Society (2008, United Kingdom) and the Beethoven-Haus Society (Germany, 2008).[16] Abreu is also co-founder and vice-chairman of YOA Orchestra of the Americas.[17]

When the B'nai B'rith Venezuelan brand gave Abreu their B'nai B'rith Human Rights Award in 2008, Abreu succinctly summarized the goal of El Sistema and of his life's work by saying, "In the struggle for Human Rights, let us vigorously incorporate children's sublime right to music, in whose bosom shines Beingness in its splendor and its ineffable mystery. Let us reveal to our children the beauty of music and music shall reveal to our children the beauty of life.".[18]

In 2008, the Prince of Asturias Awards for arts was awarded to El Sistema and Abreu accepted it in his capacity of director. In 2009, Abreu received the Crystal Award of the World Economic Forum and the TED Prize,[19] which consists of 100,000 dollars and one wish to change the world. The description for his awards is a clear description of the work he does at El Sistema as it reads, "the maestro who's transformed the lives of tens of thousands of kids... through classical music".[20]

On May 12, 2009, Abreu was awarded the Polar Music Prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.[21] Abreu and Peter Gabriel, who also won, were presented with their awards by King Carl XVI Gustaf at a gala ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall on 31 August. The Royal Swedish Academy of Music said about Abreu:[22]

The Polar Music Prize 2009 is awarded the Venezuelan conductor, composer and economist José Antonio Abreu. Driven by a vision that the world of classical music can help improve the lives of Venezuela’s children, he created the music network El Sistema, which has given hundreds of thousands the tools to leave poverty. José Antonio Abreu’s successful creation has promoted traditional values, like respect, fellowship and humanity. His achievement shows us what is possible when music is made the common ground and thereby part of people’s everyday lives. Simultaneously, a new hope for the future has been given children and parents, as well as politicians. The vision of José Antonio Abreu serves as a model to us all.

In 2010, Abreu was awarded the Erasmus Prize.[23] In 2012, Abreu was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Institute of Education, University of London in recognition of his services to music education and social change.

Abreu received the Order of the Southern Cross from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in April 2013.[24]

On September 22, 2014, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame awarded Abreu the Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America.[25]

In 2012, Abreu was awarded an Honorary Degree from Carleton University for his “outstanding contribution to the advancement of underprivileged youth through music and education”. The Simón Bolívar String Quartet performed in honour of Dr. Abreu, joined by the OrKidstra Quintet of Ottawa's own El Sistema program.


  1. ^ "Tributes paid to musical visionary". BBC News. 25 March 2018. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  2. ^ a b Barry Millington (5 April 2018). "José Antonio Abreu obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Cooper, Michael (26 March 2018). "José Antonio Abreu, Venezuelan Musical Visionary, Dies at 78". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  4. ^ "José Antonio Abreu". Fundamusical. Retrieved 18 December 2017.
  5. ^ "Nueva polémica rodea a 'El Sistema': Denuncian que PhD del maestro Abreu es falso". El Cooperante. 13 December 2017. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  6. ^ "'El Maestro' Jose Antonio Abreu dies". www.aljazeera.com. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  7. ^ madebycat.com. "José Antonio Abreu". muzik.iksv.org. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  8. ^ ""Se convirtió en nuestro orgullo": La conmovedora caricatura de Edo sobre Abreu | El Cooperante". El Cooperante (in European Spanish). 24 March 2018. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  9. ^ "José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema". Polar Music Prize. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  10. ^ "José Antonio Abreu, creator of renowned Venezuelan youth orchestra, dies at 78". The Washington Post. Associated Press. 25 March 2018. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  11. ^ "International Music Council".
  12. ^ "Biography of José Atonio Abreu". portal.unesco.org. Archived from the original on 1 October 2008.
  13. ^ "José Antonio Abreu". portal.unesco.org. Archived from the original on 18 May 2008.
  14. ^ "WCO". Archived from the original on 8 September 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2009.
  15. ^ Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA): 2007 Autumn Conferment of Decorations on Foreign Nationals, p. 2.
  16. ^ "El Sistema – Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela". Archived from the original on 6 October 2011. Retrieved 31 January 2009.
  17. ^ "YOA Orchestra of the Americas". www.yoa.org. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  18. ^ "El Sistema in penitentiaries". The Infinite Power of Music. 27 March 2008. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  19. ^ Huizenga, Tom; Flanagan, Andrew (26 March 2018). "Venezuelan conductor Jose Abreu, who envisioned musical education for all, dies at 78". yourclassical.org. Retrieved 24 June 2024.
  20. ^ "TED Prize : Wishes Big Enough to Change the World » 2009 Winners". Archived from the original on 28 December 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2009.
  21. ^ "Gabriel shares Polar Music Prize". 12 May 2009. Retrieved 28 March 2018 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  22. ^ "José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema: Laureate of the Polar Music Prize 2009". www.polarmusicprize.org. Polar Music Prize. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  23. ^ "Erasmus Prize: Former Laureates: Jose Antonio Abreu 2010". www.erasmusprijs.org. Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. Archived from the original on 26 March 2018. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  24. ^ "El maestro Abreu fue galardonado con la Orden Nacional Cruzeiro do Sul por Dilma Rousseff". Archived from the original on 13 May 2013. Retrieved 10 April 2023.
  25. ^ "Venezuelan Maestro Receives Final Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service – Kellogg Institute For International Studies". kellogg.nd.edu. Retrieved 28 March 2018.

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