Former Laureates

Jose Antonio Abreu

2010

José Antonio Abreu was born in Venezuela in 1939. He received a PhD in Petroleum Economics in 1961 and graduated in 1964 as composer and organist from the National Conservatory of Venezuela. He was professor of Economics and Planning at different universities and was also deputy in the Venezuelan Congress. In 1975 he founded Venezuela’s National Youth Symphony Orchestra. The success of this orchestra led to more youth orchestras, resulting in El Sistema, the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela. Mr Abreu has had the vision to address social problems and poverty by giving children a musical instrument and teaching them to play in a symphony orchestra. The El Sistema project has been a social success story and has been a source of inspiration for similar initiatives all over the world. Moreover it is also a driving force in the appreciation and innovation of classical music.

Citation

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2010 to dr José Antonio Abreu.

The Prize is awarded to dr Abreu on the following grounds:

Mr Abreu has had the vision to address problems of social misery and poverty by giving children a musical instrument and teaching them to play together in a symphony orchestra.

This social project has shown that by playing in an orchestra, children develop skills and competences that serve them in their personal development and in finding a firm place in society, giving them an alternative to crime, drugs and hopelessness.

With untiring zeal Mr Abreu has pursued the realization of his mission, and in a period of 35 years set up a system of youth orchestras – an immensely successful project, of gigantic proportions, a source of inspiration and an example for many similar initiatives across the world.

The El Sistema project cannot only boast great social achievements, it is also a driving force in the appreciation and innovation of classical music. The future of classical music, thanks to the efforts of Maestro Abreu, can be seen in Venezuela’s system of youth orchestras.

 

 

Laudatio

delivered by His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange

Your Majesty, Dear Maestro Abreu, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Today we are celebrating. We are celebrating the success of a project in Venezuela, a project that aims to give youngsters from underprivileged areas a purpose in life. It is a project with global relevance, whose central principle is to give children musical instruments and teach them to play together. That is, to play together in a symphony orchestra, playing classical music. Not an obvious choice, perhaps, but the results speak for themselves.

The theme of this year’s Erasmus prize is ‘the future of European classical music’.

In making this choice, the Foundation wished to underscore the importance of initiatives aimed at keeping classical music alive and reviving appreciation of this art form. Teaching children to play in a symphony orchestra is precisely such an initiative.

Reiterating the social and cultural significance of European classical music almost seems like stating the obvious – certainly in this setting. Very few people would question the old and rich tradition of this musical genre, the large number of great masterpieces produced and the many renewals the genre has experienced over the centuries. European classical music remains a world of historical and cultural significance that reflects many different values and is interwoven with society in many different ways.

But at the same time, the future of European classical music is less self-evident.
As the musical universe of the young – and old – continues to expand, classical music has to share its once prominent place on radio, TV and the stage with many other genres. A visit to a concert hall will reveal that audiences are often neither young nor diverse enough to guarantee a healthy future for classical music. And, crucially, music education no longer enjoys the undisputed place it once had in many families and schools. 
 
Even so, it is still hard to imagine bringing up children today without music and rhythm. Without singing and dancing, whether solo or ensemble. Music is like learning a foreign language: the earlier you start, the better. Young children can master several languages at the same time. And like languages, appreciation of classical music does not always come with age. If you haven’t been exposed to classical music as a child, it is much more difficult to appreciate it later in life.
But is this really so important? I, for one, believe it is! Music conveys emotion, creates structure and brings people together. Over two thousand years ago, Socrates was arguing that musical education was a blessing for the soul and the best preparation for becoming a good citizen. In his view, rhythm and harmony touch the soul directly, so if children were exposed to music at an early stage, they would learn to distinguish between good and evil.

Today many educators continue to argue, along these Socratic lines, that music education should be part of every child’s upbringing, for reasons well beyond music training. They contend that music education is critical for developing intelligence, and for success at school, success in society, and indeed success in life.

Research suggests that arts education, and especially music education, may have positive effects on other forms of intelligence and cognitive skills. But the related effects of music education are at least as important. Learning to communicate through music means learning to listen to others and to play in tune together. Imagination, creativity, empathy, thinking in metaphors and symbols, learning to cope with ambiguity, and developing an open, inquisitive attitude. These are all

On top of these individual benefits, music education also brings important social benefits. Cultural participation in society is not only about individual pleasure or development. It is also about striving to establish a cultural bond with others and attaining a shared cultural experience.
Music is a form of communication that can build bridges where other means fall short. This is especially true of playing music ourselves. Playing music together requires empathy, self-discipline and acceptance of others. These are skills that have a much wider application than in music alone.

And finally, let us not forget the simple joy and pleasure that children derive from playing music together. As a father of three young daughters, I have seen with my own eyes that you don’t have to be a maestro or child prodigy to really enjoy playing a tune, and to feel proud when you succeed. Our daughters express happiness through music and our house is very lively because of that!

Several initiatives in the Western world have recently underscored the importance of music education. They suggest that the educational focus in primary schools on language and mathematics – however important – could usefully be broadened. Only three weeks ago, in this very hall, a conference on music education saw the launch of a nationwide campaign to promote music education for children in primary schools in the Netherlands. And I wish them well!

Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we are honouring a truly exceptional example of a music education project from Venezuela. About 35 years ago, one man developed his vision of using music as an agent for change, to overcome hopelessness and poverty. His aim was to introduce youngsters from poor families to the world of music, giving them alternative prospects in an environment where drugs, disillusionment and crime were rampant.

The Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, or El Sistema for short, is the brain child of Dr José Antonio Abreu. It is also the realisation of his dream.

Over the years, El Sistema has developed into a major national project, reaching more than one million children. The government of Venezuela supplies much of the funding and is understandably proud of the project’s achievements, but El Sistema is not the product of the state. It is the work of Dr Abreu, who set it up as a social project to offer an alternative to crime and misery. It is the product of one man’s vision and the tireless work of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans. Thousands of Venezuelan children have learned to play an instrument; they have learned to play together in an orchestra; and they are mainly playing classical music.
As founder-director of El Sistema, Dr Abreu has given new meaning to music education, broadening the discourse on music’s benefits beyond concepts such as technical training, extracurricular enrichment, the cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities, or getting children to appreciate the finer things in life.

Instead, in Venezuela, music education is directly connected with a broad vision of youth development and social change. Dr Abreu has claimed that the programme aims at nothing less than ‘social rescue and deep cultural transformation.’ As he views it, when children can play music, they possess a weapon against one of the most destructive aspects of poverty: the loss of human dignity. He speaks of orchestras as ‘schools of social solidarity’, a place where students learn about discipline, responsibility, empathy and citizenship.
Mr Abreu’s vision, hard work and entrepreneurship have resulted in a system of music education that has had an immense impact. El Sistema was founded more than three decades ago, and today, according to its leaders, it reaches some 400,000 children, a staggering 70 percent of whom come from families living below the poverty line. These achievements have been a source of inspiration for music teachers and classical music advocates all over the world. Projects inspired by El Sistema have been set up throughout the Americas and Europe.

Similar projects have been initiated in the Netherlands, albeit on a smaller scale. They include ‘An instrument for every child’ in Rotterdam and the ‘Teaching Orchestra’ in south-east Amsterdam, two projects my wife has supported. We also have social projects, which employ musical skills in the service of a more socially integrated society.
As well as its impressive social impact, the El Sistema project has also shown that it can produce world-class musicians and conductors. Gustavo Dudamel joined El Sistema as an eight-year-old boy. Twenty years later, he was appointed chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra; has reached a high level of professionalism. And the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which will be giving a concert here in the Main Hall this evening – is another star Venezuelan orchestra that can fly the El Sistema flag with pride.

It was the well-known British conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, whom you saw in the introductory video, who first recognised that what started as a social project in Venezuela, heralds a resurrection of classical music. It may surprise you to know that, in his view, we are looking at nothing less than the future of classical music!

Maestro Abreu, you have devoted your life to this work, driven by a grand vision and a great sense of purpose. We admire you for your perseverance in realising this dream. We are impressed by the achievements of the project, and we trust that the example set by El Sistema will continue to be a source of inspiration.

May I now ask you to come forward so I can present you with the insignia of the Erasmus Prize.

Acceptance Speech

To receive the Erasmus Prize represents much more than a paramount honor to me. It is, above all, a significant ethical compromise, one which powerfully beckons my responsibility as a man and as an artist.

I dedicate this prestigious award to all those altruistic music teachers who, with admirable solidarity and strong faith, have tirelessly accompanied me over four decades in the founding, construction and development of the National System of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choruses of Venezuela. In the performance of our task, we confirm daily the fundamental importance of values such as tolerance, cultural diversity and the free expression of critical thinking which, by the way, are admirably inspired by this Erasmus Prize Foundation, a worldwide model, for its eminent contribution to society, to culture and to social sciences. The Foundation appears to us a worthy messenger of the vast and profound Erasmus thinking by virtue of which knowledge is to prevail over ignorance, and order over chaos; all of this by means of a high standard of humanistic education charged with civilizing energy, infused with classical spirit in its maximum and optimal dimension.
On the other hand, such a formidable contribution corresponds entirely to the exceptional cooperation that the Netherlands has always provided to the musical youths and children of our country, particularly in the person of His Excellency, former Ambassador Dick C.B. den Haas, whose personal commitment enabled the Venezuelan Orchestra System to reach the highest academic goals and outstanding artistic achievements.

In this connection, we should point out that the Venezuelan System of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choruses presently incorporates over 370,000 children and youths of medium and low resources from all the provinces in our country. Today, more than ever, we are encouraged by the decided purpose of dignifying, through Musical Formation, boys, girls and adolescents who live on the streets; the juvenile and infantile population attending Middle and Elementary Public Schools; the children and adolescents affected by severe physical and mental disabilities; and young inmates of both sexes who acquire the necessary skills to play musical instruments and train their voices in their prisons while they await their re-introduction in the community as music professionals.

Since infancy, I had the opportunity of embracing Musical Vocation, which is why I ardently desired to share it with the largest possible number of Venezuelan youths and children who live in conditions of marginality and social exclusion. Doubtlessly, this meant radically transforming the existing conception of the Music Teacher, who was almost exclusively trained for instruction of the individual. At the same time, this implied a re-interpretation of the mission assigned to Schools and Conservatories, with the goal of consolidating Musical Education in my country on a gigantic social scale. In this way, with the steadfast support of a number of honorable Venezuelan Maestros, and with particular intensity since February 1975, we established the pedagogical social and artistic principle within which daily Orchestral and Choral practice needed to be understood as indispensible complement of Individual Instruction, within the bosom of the Student-teacher relationship. Today, El Sistema grows rapidly in Europe and Asia, sprouts in South Africa and illuminates the musical horizon of Australia and New Zeeland. For those of us who Play, Sing and Strive within the Project, the dream has taken on planetary proportions.

Because of the formidable societal impact of the System, in Venezuela we seek to meet with music, not only at concert halls, but also in personal and everyday affairs, battling against the perverse use of leisure, against drugs and violence, thus simultaneously promoting the access of those in need of Aesthetic Formation and a Life of Art. Material poverty will be categorically vanquished by the sublime spiritual richness that grows through and in the music. Social justice and cultural justice constitute two aspects of a sole and indissoluble dimension.

In perennial syntony with the gigantic legacy of Erasmus, we aspire to devote the remainder of our existence to the noble ideal of a New Musical Art, one that beyond its aesthetic dimension, shines as a proud symbol of immense human development and a rebirth of ethical conscience: Temple of Beauty and of Truth, Paradise of Love and Hope for all children of the world. The monumental heritage of Erasmus of Rotterdam does not in vain express absolute condemnation of fanaticism and war, alongside an ardent vow to the ideal of an ascending and creative social structure, constituted by increasingly elevated and sublime human relations, presided by Harmony, Equity and Reason.

I could not end these words without invoking the generous solidarity of Your Royal Highnesses and the Erasmus Prize Foundation, with the glorious utopia of a Worldwide Youth Musical Movement, primarily devoted to the excluded and the poor, birth and sign of a Universal Culture of Peace.

José Antonio Abreu in the Royal Concertgebouw

José Antonio Abreu during the award ceremony in 2010 in the Royal Concertgebouw.