Josef Labor (1842-1924)

Josef Labor (29 June 1842 – 26 April 1924) was an Austrian pianist, organist, and composer of the late Romantic era. Labor was an influential music teacher. As a friend of some key figures in Vienna, his importance was enhanced.

Labor was born in the town of Hořovice in Bohemia to Josef Labor, an administrator of ironworks, and his wife Josefa Wallner, coming from a doctors-family. Both of his parences cacame from vienes families. His father belonged to the circle of Schubert-Friends and had been in his younger years a composer hinself. At the age of three, he was left blind due to contracting smallpox. He attended the Institute for the Blind in Vienna and the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Conservatory of the Society of Friends of Music) where he studied composition with Bruckner’s teacher, Simon Sechter, and piano with Eduard Pickhert.

He toured Europe as a pianist and, in the process, formed a lasting friendship with King Georg V of Hanover, who was also blind. Georg named him Royal Chamber Pianist in 1865. At Hanover he met Josef Joachim. Both men founden a lifelong friendship. The following year, Labor folowed the kings exile and settled in Vienna, where Labor began and became a piano-teacher, while continuing to compose and perform. In 1875 he took also organ lessons with Johann Evangelist Habert and became a distiquished organist himself. In 1904, Labor received the title Kaiserlich und Königlich Hoforganist (Royal and Imperial Court Organist) and is today best known for his organ works. Labor took a serious interest in early music and wrote continuo elaborations for Heinrich Biber’s sonatas.

Labor gave piano-lessons to many notable musical personalities including Alma Schindler (who married Gustav Mahler and others), Paul Wittgenstein and Arnold Schoenberg. Alma Schindler studied with Labor for 6 years, beginning when she was 14, and her diaries contain numerous references to her esteemed teacher.

Labor was very close to Paul Wittgenstein’s family. He attended many musical evenings at the Wittgenstein home with such Viennese musicians of the day as Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, and Richard Strauss. As a compositional teacher he gave private lections to Julius Bittner and Rudolf Braun.

When Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I, Josef Labor was the first person he asked to write a piece for piano left hand. Wittgenstein later commissioned works for the left hand from other composers including Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, and Franz Schmidt (the finale of Schmidt’s A major Clarinet Quintet – the last of his Wittgenstein commissions – is a set of variations on a theme by Labor from Labor’s own clarinet and piano quintet, his Op. 11 published in 1901).

Paul’s brother, the philosopher and writer Ludwig Wittgenstein, praised Josef Labor as one of “the six truly great composers” along with Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.

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