It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema. As our readers will know, Maestro Abreu was the 8th Glenn Gould Prize Laureate, receiving the Prize in 2009. He was a visionary figure, who recognized the power of music to transform the lives of children suffering the ravages of poverty and the host of social ills that goes with it.
From that realization, and by sheer force of will, he built the movement that came to be known as El Sistema, beginning of a mere 11 young people in 1975, but ultimately helping to enrich the lives of more than two million Venezuelans who have passed through the program. With its focus on intensive free music education and orchestral training, starting in early childhood, El Sistema is a program that is truly transformative. It has now spread to more than 25 countries worldwide, adapting and accommodating itself to the social and economic context of each.
Dr. Abreu had been in failing health for many years, suffering from debilitating diabetes and ulcers, and in recent years had largely withdrawn from active life, leaving the administration of El Sistema in the hands of alumni of the program trained by him. He was a man both of great principle and will, focussed single-mindedly on the mission of El Sistema - to save children through music.
Warm, kind, self-deprecating, he was also tireless, and worked himself and often those around him relentlessly in order to ensure the growth of El Sistema in Venezuela and beyond. To those who knew him, he was a mentor and an inspirational figure, but one possessed of great kindness and warmth, as well as a wry sense of humour. Sadly, as the political situation in his country became more and more desperate, it also became harder for him to maintain the strict neutrality that served him and El Sistema so well through the passage of governments of various stripes. El Sistema has undoubtedly suffered in Venezuela during the turmoil of recent months, something which must have troubled and grieved Abreu deeply. However, he has left behind a legacy that will stand the test of time, kept alive in those who were nurtured, motivated, and whose inner lives were enriched by the gift of music that he gave them.