The Polar Music Prize 2009 is awarded the Venezuelan conductor, composer and economist José Antonio Abreu. Driven by a vision that the world of classical music can help improve the lives of Venezuela’s children, he created the music network El Sistema, which has given hundreds of thousands the tools to leave poverty. José Antonio Abreu’s successful creation has promoted traditional values, like respect, fellowship and humanity. His achievement shows us what is possible when music is made the common ground and thereby part of people’s everyday lives. Simultaneously, a new hope for the future has been given children and parents, as well as politicians. The vision of José Antonio Abreu serves as a model to us all.

Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.

Maestro José Antonio Abreu
Chapter: Education


Born in 1939 in Valera, Venezuela, multi talented Maestro Abreu’s career has so far been within music, politics, activism and economics. He attended the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy in 1957, where he studied piano, organ, harpsichord and composition. In 1967, he received the Symphonic Music National Prize for his musical ability. In parallel with his musical studies, he earned a PhD degree in Petroleum Economics in 1961, and did directly after that some graduate work at the University of Michigan. He served as a Deputy at the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela and was Minister of Culture in 1983. After his political career, he also worked as a professor of economics and law at Universidad Simón Bolívar and his Alma Mater.

Maestro José Antonio Abreu at the Polar Music Prize ceremony in 2009 (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Venezuela National Congress in Caracas (Photo: By Derek Rose, via Wikimedia Commons)
Caracas Brass Band (Photo: By Agonzalez via Wikimedia Commons)
Interview by Tilde de Paula at the Polar Music banquet (in Spanish)
Chapter: Foundation


In 1975 Maestro Abreu gathered eleven youngsters for a rehearsal in an underground car park, and told them that they were making history. At the next rehearsal, there were 25 musicians; the following day, 46; the day after, 75. In the heady days of the Venezuelan oil boom and at a time when there were just two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, both employing largely European musicians, he managed to win government funding for his scheme from the department of health, arguing that the well-being of children at risk was at stake. El Sistema, formally known as the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela, was born.

Chapter: El Sistema

El Sistema

La Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela – El Sistema – was created in 1975. The principles of El Sistema are simple: Children as young as two are given an instrument as soon as they can hold it. Tuition, outings, music and, where necessary, social support are all furnished free of charge in return for the child’s agreement to play in one of El Sistema’s ensembles.

Pianist Gabriela Montero, part of one of the first Youth Orchestras, now famous worldwide. Press photo by Colin Bell

Group lessons are given special emphasis, although individual lessons are part of the training, too. Children who have mastered a scale or two are delegated to teach younger children. Peer support is fundamental. It is all the vision of one man who resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. (source: Wikipedia)

Gustavo Dudamel, by VALE TV, via Wikimedia Commons

The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYOV) is an artistic consequence of El Sistema. The orchestra’s music director since 1999 is Gustavo Dudamel, once a pupil within El Sistema and now world famous conductor and musical director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and honorary music director for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Orchestral playing is part of the El Sistema programme from the beginning. Six days a week, four hours a day, the children play music together in one of 90 music schools, “núcleos,” around the country.

Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan military and political leader, “The Liberator” of several countries in South America during the 19th century. Source: Ricardo Acevedo Bernal/Wikimedia Commons

By 2011 the SBYOV was no longer officially a youth orchestra because the average age of the players had risen too high. It has therefore been replaced by its younger sibling, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra.

Teresa Carreño, musician, pianist and composer from Venezuela, also the first woman conductor. Plaque on the 96th Street side of the apartment building “Della Robbia”, Manhattan. Source: McJonathan via Wikimedia Commons
Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra conducted by G. Dudamel, live at TED Talks 2009.
Chapter: Social emphasis

Social emphasis

Extraordinarily, Maestro Abreu has persuaded seven successive changes of government to back his sistema. “The government funds it precisely because of the social emphasis of the programme,” he explains. “The state has understood perfectly that this programme, although it works through music, is essentially a social project, a project for human development, which is the main aim of the Venezuelan state”.

I remember looking at the music on the stand at my first orchestral rehearsal. It was a Tchaikovsky symphony. And I thought, ‘They are crazy!’ But they never, ever say, ‘You won’t be able to do that.’ Nobody ever said ‘no‘ to me in the orchestra. Never.

Edicson Ruiz, former member of El Sistema, now the youngest-ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 17

“For many of the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It is a big family which is dedicated to harmony, to those beautiful things which only music brings to human beings.”

Orquestra Sinfônica Simón Bolívar (Photo: Marcio De Assis via Wikimedia Commons)
Members of Lilla Akademin (The Junior Academy in Stockholm, Sweden) at the Polar Music Prize Ceremony (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Chapter: The Polar Music Prize

Stockholm, August 2009

Citation for Maestro Abreu read by Jan Eliasson
Polar Music Prize diploma 2009
Members of Lilla Akademin (The Junior Academy in Stockholm, Sweden) at the Polar Music Prize Ceremony - Libertango
Maestro Abreu and Jan Eliasson at the Polar Music Prize ceremony
Peter Gabriel and fellow Laureate 2009 José Antonio Abreu with the Swedish Royal Family
Laureates of 2009 and the Royal Family
At the Polar Music Prize lecture & press conference (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Children in pre-school painting while listening to classic music. Experiment by Polar Music Prize and McCann Stockholm