Remembering José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema

In memoriam: José Antonio Abreu

May 7, 1939 – March 24, 2018

by Tricia Tunstall, Executive Editor of The World Ensemble. Tunstall is also the co-author, with Eric Booth, of Playing For Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement For Social Change Through Music (W.W. Norton, September 2016) and the author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema

We at The World Ensemble share the deep sadness of so many thousands at the death of Maestro Abreu, whose brilliant vision, boundless energy and bright spirit made him a singular source of hope and light in our often-dark world. For us, as for many of our readers, the example of his life and work has inspired some of our own most important life choices.

Maestro Abreu was a pivotal agent of social and artistic reform in Venezuela and throughout the world. He was the first global leader to powerfully fuse the realms of arts education, child poverty, and social change. Along with all of that—and just as important, he would have said—he was a teacher. We once asked Gustavo Dudamel about what it was like to study with Maestro Abreu. “All the time he is teaching you music, he is also teaching you social values,” he answered. “It is always about music. And it is also always about love.”

Maestro Abreu leaves an astonishing legacy—a network of programs, not only in Venezuela but also around the world, that serve close to a million children. We who lead, teach in, and support those programs have the good fortune not only to carry on that legacy but also to explore, refine, expand and enrich it.

Fortunately, the Maestro was profoundly quotable, so we’ll always have his words to inspire us.

“Poverty is not just the lack of a roof or bread. It is also a spiritual lack – a loneliness and lack of recognition. The vicious cycle of poverty can be broken when a child poor in material possessions acquires spiritual wealth through music.”

“No hay nada más sublime en la vida que dar, y cuanto más das, más recibes, y esa es la felicidad que uno tiene, con la que cuenta, y es mucha. Ahí reside el auténtico sentido, todo el sentido.”

“Poverty generates anonymity…an orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, success. Music creates happiness and hope in a community.”

“I’m convinced that after death we continue to work no matter where we end up in: that in heaven there is work to do, that God’s house is not one of idleness, we work with him, we are associated with him him.”

“To sing and to play together means to intimately coexist. Music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility and in the forging of values.”

Let’s honor the Maestro’s memory by widening and deepening our connections with each other. It is always about music, and it is also always about love.