José Antonio Abreu

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José Antonio Abreu at the 2009 TED conference

José Antonio Abreu Anselmi (born May 7, 1939 in Valera , Venezuela ; † March 24, 2018 in Caracas ) was a Venezuelan composer , economist, politician, educator, activist and founder of the largest musical project in Venezuela, the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar .

Professional background

Abreu studied at the University of Music in Caracas and at the same time economics and law at the university. He later taught these subjects as a university professor. At the same time he appeared as a conductor and gave concerts as a harpsichordist , organist and pianist .

Orquesta Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar

Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London 2007

In Venezuela, 75 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for years. In Caracas , a large part of the population lives in barrios , where crime and violence are rampant.

José Antonio Abreu wanted to help alleviate the misery of children and young people and give them a chance. He saw music as a means for this.

In 1975 there were two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, most of which consisted of professional European musicians. This year Abreu invited 11 young musicians to a music rehearsal and announced to them that they were about to make history. The second rehearsal attracted 25 musicians, the third 46 and the fourth 75 musicians. Abreu founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar , named after the freedom fighter Simón Bolívar .

Abreu did not just want to found a symphony orchestra, but also wanted to use music for the education and mental and social stabilization of children, as the musicians pass on their knowledge to children from the worst of backgrounds.

El Sistema: National system of youth and children's orchestras of Venezuela

During the oil boom, Abreu persuaded the Ministry of Health to subsidize his social enterprise. This is how the system of youth and children's orchestras of Venezuela, the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela , called El Sistema, came into being . Are the core núcleos music schools of said sistema . Children are admitted from the age of two. Children can use musical instruments and receive music lessons free of charge six days a week. They are divided into musical groups and later into ensembles. Participation is mandatory. Singing, dancing and movement are used extensively in training.

The children enjoy a safe and non-violent environment in the music schools. The music teachers work with local social services and the orphanage and provide for missing clothes, food or other everyday items.

The children receive a lot of care, attention and affirmation. You will be encouraged, not discouraged, in a positive atmosphere. As soon as the children can play a little, they pass their knowledge on to younger children. The numerous music teachers work according to selected teaching methods from Kodály , Suzuki and Solfège, among others .

Abreu has been able to win the support of all incumbent governments since 1975. As a result, Venezuela had 90 Montalban music schools with 250,000 children, 125 youth orchestras, 57 children's orchestras and 30 professional symphony orchestras in 2007.

The Fundación del Estado para el Sistema National de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (Fesnojiv) employs 1500 music teachers for this purpose. The total annual cost of the project is $ 29 million and is an unusually high amount for a developing country.

Abreu said: “The government supports my project precisely because of its social orientation. The state understood very well that the project, although it works with the means of music, is first and foremost a social one: a project to promote general human qualities. Because for the children we work with, music is almost the only way to a humane existence. Poverty - that means: loneliness, sadness, anonymity. Orchestra - that means: joy, motivation, team spirit, striving for success. We are a big family looking for harmony and those beautiful things that music alone can bring to people. ”He likes to quote Mother Teresa and says:“ It is also a spiritual battle for the true, the beautiful, the good - against Need and economic greed. "

Since government instruments are sometimes scarce, the youngest children are introduced to music and how to use an instrument in so-called paper orchestras with self-made instruments made of paper and cardboard.

The system has produced orchestras and musicians of extraordinary quality. Conductors like Claudio Abbado , Sir Simon Rattle and Zubin Mehta now come to Venezuela every year to make music with the young people.

Several world-famous musicians have emerged from the ranks of the orchestral system, including Gustavo Dudamel (conductor of the Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar ) and Aléxis Cárdenas (violin). Edicson Ruiz (double bass) was brought to the music school by a neighbor because his mother was concerned about her son's increasingly violent behavior. At the age of 17, he became the youngest ever accepted member of the Berliner Philharmoniker .


In his book El Sistema, the London musicologist Geoffrey Baker made violent accusations against the organization, which he began to study in 2007: he sees a “tyrannical structure” as the not uncommon phenomena in Venezuela of “top-level corruption, favoritism and improper sexual” relations between teachers and pupils ”(“ Corruption at the highest level, favoritism and immoral sexual relations between teachers and students ”). Eduardo Mendez , the managing director of El Sistema , admitted: “Like any big institution, problems exist but to suggest there is a widespread virus is absolutely false.” (“As in any large institution, problems exist, but it is assumed that it is acting a widespread infection is absolutely wrong. ")

Another point of Baker's criticism concerns the origin of the recruited children, who do not come from the poorest strata of the population, but predominantly from the middle class - of which Gustavo Dudamel is an example. Baker attempts a more fundamental discussion of the system with the rejection of the orchestra: it is an outdated institution, not necessarily suitable for leading children out of social deprivation. One must also ask oneself whether the classical-romantic European music introduced in Venezuela is a suitable medium for musical education and whether local music should not be promoted.

In a review in the Book Review column , James R. Oestreich, music critic for the New York Times , chalked up Baker's methodological errors, unverifiable sources, and bias. However, he admits that a dispassionate analysis of El Sistema as a counterbalance to the invariably uncritical and overly anthemic comments has been lacking and would be desirable.


Abreu and the system of youth and children's orchestras of Venezuela have received a number of awards.


Abreu composed chamber music and piano works , choirs and sacred choral works, including an a cappella mass for the dead . He also wrote two symphonies , a "Neo-Classical Symphony" and a symphonic poem .


  • Torsten Eßer: Symphony of the Street. The Venezuelan Youth Orchestra Movement. In: Matices. Journal on Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Volume 10, No. 39, 2003, pp. 55–56.
  • Shirley Apthorp: Music against poverty, neglect and crime . In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung . International edition, March 12, 2007, p. 27.
  • Michael Kaufmann and Stefan Piendl: The miracle of Caracas. How José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema inspire the world. Irisiana, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-424-15079-7 .
  • Elisabeth Elstner: The social power of music, trip to the Venezuelan youth and children's orchestras in Venezuela. 2nd, revised edition, Epubli, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-8442-0662-3 .


  • The musical miracle of Caracas - El Sistema: From the poor district to the concert hall. Television documentary, Germany, 2007, 30 min., Director: Peter Puhlmann, production: SWR , summary on Planet Schule (SWR / WDR ).
  • The power of music. (Original title: The Promise of Music. ) TV documentary, Germany, 2008, 93 min., Director: Enrique Sánchez Lansch , production: ZDF , first broadcast: May 11, 2008
    This documentary was shown in 2008 at the 12th Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) awarded as “Best Documentary”.
  • El Sistema. (Original title) Documentary, Germany, 2009, 102 min., Director: Paul Smaczny (also producer), Maria Stodtmeier , release date: Thursday, April 16, 2009, film page .
  • Mata Tigre - Change through Music in Venezuela: El Sistema. Online video documentation, Venezuela, 2011, 30 min., Director: Stefan Bohun, documentary about young musicians in El Sistema, (Spanish with English subtitles), online video .

Web links

Commons : José Antonio Abreu  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Awards and recognitions

Individual evidence

  1. Geoffrey Baker: El Sistema. Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth. Oxford University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-934155-9
  2. Mark Swed: El Sistema founder, Gustavo Dudamel are targets of scathing new book . In: Los Angeles Times , December 6, 2014, accessed March 26, 2018.
  3. ^ Venezuelan classical music system under fire . AP article from Mail Online , November 28, 2014, accessed March 25, 2018.
  4. James R. Oestreich: Striking Dissident Notes, With Many Reprises . In: The New York Times , December 17, 2014, p. C1 of the New York edition, accessed March 25, 2018.
  5. Blue Planet Award ceremony 2008: Blue Planet Award ceremony on March 14, 2009 to José Abreu and Hugo Chavez (both Venezuela) . ethecon - Ethics & Economics Foundation, accessed on March 25, 2018.
  6. An account of His Magnificence Rector Professor Ryszard Zimak and Vice-Rector Professor Ewa Iżykowska-Lipińska's stay in Venezuela. Fryderyk Chopin University of Music , September 23, 2015.
  7. “The Power of Music” honored in Los Angeles: ZDF documentary about Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra . ZDF press release , September 23, 2008, accessed on March 25, 2018.