Biography of Notre Dame Prize Laureate

Economist, musician, and conductor José Antonio Abreu is the founding director of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela, commonly known as “El Sistema.”* Over almost four decades, the free music education program for underprivileged children has educated more than two million children in his native Venezuela and around the world.

Maestro Abreu was born the eldest of six children on May 7, 1939 in the Andean city of Valera, Venezuela. He trained as an economist and received a PhD in petroleum economics from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in 1961. By 1969 he was an economics professor.

A pianist from a young age, Abreu studied piano, organ, harpsichord, and composition at the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy (today known as José Ángel Lamas) in 1957. In 1964 he earned advanced degrees in composition and organ from the same institution, Venezuela’s national music conservatory.

In 1975, motivated by his deep Catholic faith and a firm conviction that art could transform lives, Abreu founded the group that would become El Sistema. Known then as Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the first meeting consisted of only 11 children practicing in a parking garage in Caracas.

The maestro conceived of the program as an antidote to the violence of urban Venezuela, believing the self-esteem and character his students developed through rigorous arts training would help them break out of an intergenerational cycle of poverty.

The program grew quickly, and after winning a contest in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1979 it became a formal social service initiative of the Venezuelan government.

In 1994, Maestro Abreu became the founding director of a vast network of training centers and ensembles modeled on the Youth Orchestra. Over the last 33 years, the organization has received government funding to provide free classical music education—including free instruments—for children in 280 centers (núcleos) and youth orchestras around the country.

Abreu entered political life the year he received his PhD, serving as a deputy in the Venezuelan National Assembly. In 1983, after founding El Sistema, he became the country’s Minister for Culture, a post he held for five years. He also served as the president of Venezuela’s National Council for Culture.

El Sistema has been imitated in many countries around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and throughout Latin America.

Studies show El Sistema is meeting its goals: its students are more likely to succeed academically and less likely to run afoul of the law. Spurred by statistics that say every dollar invested in El Sistema reaps $1.68 in social benefits, the Inter-American Development Bank recently backed the group to the tune of $150 million.

The widespread success of El Sistema has brought Abreu a long list of accolades. In 1998, he was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. He received the Légion d’honneur of France in 1998, the Right Livelihood Award in 2001, and the TED Prize in 2009.

* After being known for many years as the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV) [Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela], it is now officially named the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar (FMSB), but is still known informally as “El Sistema” and as FESNOJIV.