For achieving a unique cultural renaissance, bringing the joys of music to countless disadvantaged children and communities.
José Antonio Abreu (1939-2018) was a Venezuelan musician, composer and teacher of several generations of Venezuelan musicians. With a background as a cultural manager, university professor and public servant, he founded the Symphony Orchestra Simon Bolivar and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra (NSYO) in 1975, explicitly oriented towards lower-income social strata. Studies have also shown that the young people involved in the orchestras also perform better in other academic and social life areas.
Inspired by the many tours of El Sistema’s orchestras worldwide, similar initiatives have been started in more than 70 countries in Latin America and Europe. Only in Venezuela, it has empowered more than one million children, many of them now teachers and recognized musicians.
José Antonio Abreu (1939-2018) was born in Venezuela in 1939. His education pursued two tracks: he obtained a PhD in petroleum economics in 1961, and in 1964 graduated as a composer and organist from Venezuela's national conservatory of music. By 1969, Abreu was a Professor of Economics and Professor of Planning at different universities and was also a Deputy in the Venezuelan Congress. In 1975, he began the work for which he was awarded, founding the Symphony Orchestra Simon Bolivar and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra (NSYO).
The success of the NSYO under Abreu's direction led to the establishment of youth orchestras in other Venezuelan States, which has grown into the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela under the auspices of a State Foundation, FESNOJIV. This now involves 110,000 Venezuelans, grouped in 120 youth orchestras, 60 children's orchestras and a network of choirs, with musical training starting from the age of two. The orchestras are based on 75 'orchestral cells' around the country, each with at least one orchestr. The System also includes workshops in which children learn to build and repair instruments, special programmes for children with disabilities or learning difficulties, and specialist centres or institutes for phonology, audiovisuals and higher musical education.
Perhaps the most remarkable element about this orchestral System is that it is explicitly oriented towards lower-income social strata. It has been described as "a social movement of massive dimensions, that works using music as the instrument that makes the social integration of different Venezuelan population groups possible and supports the strata with low income." The orchestras have had a substantial social impact in the communities where they are active, legitimising and promoting music throughout the community and leading to a musical and cultural renaissance. Studies have also shown that the young people involved in the orchestras also perform better in other academic and social life areas.
This unique programme of musical education and awakening has attracted much international notice and acclaim. UNESCO awarded FESNOJIV its International Music Award in 1993-94. In 1998, UNDP commended it as an outstanding example of poverty reduction. Inspired by the many tours of El Sistema's orchestras worldwide, similar initiatives have been started in many countries, for example, several Latin American countries, all over the USA, in Germany and Sweden. It is probably the first worldwide movement for social change through art.
FESNOJIV is a substantial organisation with nearly 1,000 staff spread through the 75 'orchestral cells'. Abreu was the Director of the Foundation from its establishment in 1994, before which he was for five years Venezuela's Minister for Culture and President of its National Council for Culture. In 1998 he received UNESCO's title 'Ambassador for Peace'. He was also a recipient of several awards: the 2008 Prince of Asturias Arts Award, the 2009 Polar Music Prize, the Légion d'honneur of France and the Peace Prize of Seoul, Korea, in 2010. He received honorary degrees from the Metropolitana University, Caracas, in 2010, and from Carleton University, Canada, in 2012.