José Antonio Abreu, Founder of Venezuela's El Sistema, Dies at 78

Pontus Lundahl/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan conductor and composer Jose Antonio Abreu (R) attends the 2009 Polar Music Prize in Stockholm on Aug. 31, 2009. 

“Like no one else in our times, he taught us that art is a universal right,” conductor Gustavo Dudamel said of his teacher and mentor.

José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, passed away Saturday (March 24) at age 78.  Abreu started Venezuela’s free music education and social justice project in 1975, with the goal of improving children’s lives and society in general through music.

Hundreds of thousands of children, including conductor Gustavo Dudamel, have since attended El Sistema’s after school programs and performed in its youth orchestras around the country. Elements of “The System’s” methods are now used around the world.

“Music has lost one of its most luminous figures, the maestro José Antonio Abreu,” Dudamel wrote in Spanish in a tribute he posted on social media. “Like no one else in our times, he taught us that art is a universal right and that inspiration and beauty irreversibly transform the soul of a child, converting him into a fuller, healthier more complete and happier human being, and thus, into a better citizen.”  

El Sistema’s slogan is “to play and to fight,” referring to Abreu’s intention to use music in the struggle for social justice. The goal of El Sistema has not been solely for children to learn music, but to gain purpose and direction for their lives.  

“As a boy, in my early childhood, I always wanted to be a musician, and, thank God, I made it,” Abreu said in a speech he made when he won the Ted Prize in 2009. “From my teachers, my family and my community, I had all the necessary support to become a musician. All my life I've dreamed that all Venezuelan children have the same opportunity that I had. From that desire and from my heart stemmed the idea to make music a deep and global reality for my country.

"The effect of El Sistema is felt in three fundamental circles: in the personal/social circle, in the family circle and in the community. In the personal/social circle, the children in the orchestras and choirs develop their intellectual and emotional side. The music becomes a source for developing the dimensions of the human being, thus elevating the spirit and leading man to a full development of his personality. So, the emotional and intellectual profits are huge -- the acquisition of leadership, teaching and training principles, the sense of commitment, responsibility, generosity and dedication to others, and the individual contribution to achieve great collective goals. All this leads to the development of self-esteem and confidence."

Watch Maestro Abreu’s full TED Talk below.