José Antonio Abreu, the great Venezuelan music educator, activist, and founder of El Sistema, died on March 24 at the age of 78.
Abreu was a professional musician, economist, and one-time cabinet minister, but his life’s mission was to democratize and universalize music education. In 1975, he founded El Sistema, a trailblazing program that began as a struggling Caracas youth orchestra and evolved into a national system of free, accessible music education for hundreds of thousands of children and young people, many of them living in impoverished or harsh circumstances.
Under Abreu’s guidance, El Sistema in Venezuela came to include several international touring orchestras, a number of regional orchestras, hundreds of “núcleos”, or music learning centers, throughout every part of the country, and a robust national program for children with special needs. In more recent years, he initiated El Sistema programs in prisons, children’s hospitals, and neo-natal clinics, as well as programs to celebrate and preserve the national folk music heritage. Thanks to his astute stewardship, El Sistema in Venezuela has survived seven changes of political regime throughout in the past 43 years, winning and sustaining the support of regimes ranging from far right to far left.
Abreu’s most famous protégé, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at 27, and continues to lead that orchestra while also becoming one of the most sought-after guest conductors in the world.
The impact of his work was captured in his 2009 TED Talk
, which received the prestigious TED Talk Prize.
Today, we continue to honor his legacy by embracing the principles of El Sistema through supporting the broader field of Creative Youth Development, which includes El Sistema programs throughout the United States.
The global mourning of this great arts education leader has been noted in numerous publications, read more below: