Exclusive: El Sistema founder had a phantom PhD

Exclusive: El Sistema founder had a phantom PhD


norman lebrecht

December 10, 2017

José Antonio Abreu, revered founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema, has a PhD in petroleum economics from the University of Pennsylvania.

That’s what it says in Sistema’s official biography, Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios (2010), published in English in 2011 as Venezuela, The Miracle of Music. Its author, Chefi Borzacchini, dedicated the book to Abreu and thanked him for his support in creating it. Abreu’s academic credentials are also mentioned on the Sistema website, and on in his Wikipedia entry, stating 1961 as the year he received his PhD.

Two researchers have checked independently with the University of Pennsylvania archives. On the UPenn master alumni roster, which lists all students who attended between 1753 and 1977, Abreu’s name is nowhere to be found.

The PhD has vanished overnight from the Sistema website (we have a screenshot of the previous version).

Looks like the doctorate joins a lengthening roster of Sistema myths.


Abreu (r) with protégé Dudamel and Venezuela president Maduro


  • Tim says:

    It’s Chavez, not Maduro.

  • John Doe says:

    Awkward. If you’re going to present yourself as a moral authority, your record needs to be impeccable.

  • Geoff Baker says:

    I’ve written some thoughts on this revelation on my El Sistema blog:


    • Stanford Thompson says:

      I never remember Abreu saying he went to Penn and I wonder if he has ever walked that campus… I always understood that he received his PhD in petroleum economics from the Catholic University of Andres Bello in 1961. Have you checked their records?

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Perhaps his degree is before 1753?

  • Francisco says:

    Astonishing and difficult to believe.

  • Ungeheuer says:

    And, of course, El Sistema’s gold medal, Gustavo Dudamel, is the greatest conductor the world has ever heard and will ever hear.

    • Sue says:

      Well, that’s refreshing to hear!:-)

      Hey folks; don’t accept any kind of propaganda from a dictatorship.

    • C Porumbescu says:

      And Dudamel’s abilities as a conductor are related to Abreu’s lack of qualifications in petrochemical engineering how, exactly?

  • Brian says:

    Given that Abreu appears to speak little if no English, to my understanding, a U Penn PhD does seem questionable. Most public universities in the U.S. require you pass a test for English as a Second Language. Especially if you’re doing PhD work, that requires a heavy amount of writing and orally defending your thesis.

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Personally, I’m willing to cut Dr. Abreu some slack but in the case of POTUS, I will let others judge.


    • John Doe says:

      Interesting. Why do you think that it’s OK for one major public figure and not for another? We were told that Abreu was the Mother Teresa of classical music, so surely that demands a pretty impeccable record? Unless they meant it like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJG-lgmPvYA

    • Mark Henriksen says:

      Here is a multiple choice test for you. Which student is the biggest liar?

      (a) Student A never attended Curtis but said he did.

      (b) Student B attended Curtis and said they were the best oboist ever, but never played principal in the orchestra.

      Assume, both agree with you completely on all political opinions. This is to help you remain objective.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        You’re too kind. People lying about going to Curtis? You mean there’s gambling in Casablanca? In general, anyone who walked into the building and had a lesson feels they have the right to claim they went there.

        Thanks also for assuming that this was a political decision. It was my attempt to value Abreu’s contributions to humanity (let the slings and arrows fly). Sorry to denigrate the great contributions of DT to world peace, culture, and the future of humankind (is that too pompous? please don’t let me know).

        No need to make pithy replies because I’m old and set in my opinions.

  • Malcolm James says:

    Maybe we just need to recognise that Abreu’s achievement in setting up El Sistema is immense, but that he’s not a saint, which is what some accounts would have you believe.

    • Geoff Baker says:

      Fair point. It was his foreign acolytes (and journalists) who went around comparing him to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Pope. Half the problem is the unrealistic portrayal. On the other hand, his acolytes didn’t write his biography. And if you read Chefi Borzacchini’s book, you can see that Abreu did a pretty good job of portraying himself as a saint. And El Sistema’s press office is not exactly reserved in its depiction of its Dear Leader.

      Fortunately, there are other sources of information available today, which there weren’t when this story burst onto the classical music scene a decade ago. Anyone who’s seriously interested doesn’t need to take the propaganda at face value.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    After Ilya Musin the conductor died I was intrigued by how many young conductors claimed in their programme biogs. that they had trained with him. Some of them would have been in primary school!

  • Anastazy Podolski says:

    And how did the researchers get around FERPA? – an outside person is usually not allowed to get someone else’s graduation records so easily….
    But I am not saying this to encourage people to claim fake PhD’s…

    • steven holloway says:

      Just check the institution’s library catalogue. All master’s theses and doctoral dissertations must be deposited in the library’s holdings, right there in the stacks.

  • luciano tanto says:

    Maduro, ¡qué parecuido a Chávez! Más aun, idéntico. 🙁

  • The View from America says:

    Gee, what a surprise …

  • Bruce Whitson says:

    In all the available information which I have found, Abreu’s graduate studies in the U.S. are referred to as having been at the University of Michigan. Could that be the reason no information about him is available from the University of Pennsylvania?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Those were his alleged post-doc studies.

    • Geoff Baker says:

      The official sources say PhD from Pennsylvania. There are some less official sources that say graduate courses at Michigan, but this does not appear in the official sources, and graduate courses do not equal a PhD.

  • Geoff Baker says:

    Case closed. El Sistema has admitted that the information was false. It makes no mention of a PhD from any other institution.


  • Jose Antonio Abreu, just another piece of shit that erodes the moral foundations of the venezuelan society.

  • Keane Southard says:

    I just randomly happened to read about a Venezuelan from Caracas who went to go get his PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania decades ago and didn’t know any English when he arrived. His name was Jaime Marquez, and worked for more than 30 years as an economist in Washington D.C. and became a US citizen. Might this part of his life have been stolen for Abreu’s bio?

    Anyways, other sources online I’ve found seem to say Abreu received a PhD in petroleum economics from the Universidad Católica Andres Bello. As for the Michigan graduate studies, UMich gave him an honorary doctorate in 2012 and in their announcement they state that he did take some graduate courses there in the past, so they should know what they are talking about.