Monday, February 20, 2012

"A Nervous Splendor"

Frederic Morton's book A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 zeros in on a tiny time-slice of the history of Vienna. As the several other books I've read, this one confronts the rising antisemitism that was just beginning to dominate Viennese life, and contrasts it to the rising activity of Jewish intellectuals. The major focus of the book is the Imperial court, especially the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf at his estate Meyerling at the end of January 1889. The frenzy of public mourning after his death, and the cover up of his relationship with the woman who jointly committed suicide with him are also presented within the context of Viennese life at the time.

Rudolf was an ineffective and extremely frustrated man without any power. His titles were meaningless, and his liberal political views inexpressible within the constraints of his life. Morton contrasts Rudolph's helplessness at age 30, and the futility of his liberalism, with the early lives of several men not far from his age: Sigmund Freud, Hugo Wolfe, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, Anton Bruckner; and Karl Lueger, the antisemite. Also present, representing an older generation, Johannes Brahms and others. Morton also describes the lives of several lower-class (and never subsequently famous) families and individuals as they live through the last half of 1888 and the beginning of 1889.

I found most fascinating the author's description of how a number of individuals and families celebrated Christmas. Morton describes several of these events in detail. The well-off secular-Jewish families of Arthur Schnitzler and Theodor Herzl were decorating their Christmas trees. Not so the Freud family, who didn't participate in the holiday. Anton Bruckner played the organ for a monastic midnight mass outside of town. The poor family that figures throughout the book could afford to buy and decorate only a branch from a tree; they presented one another with second-hand goods for gifts. Gustav Klimt, Hugo Wolf, and others had conventional celebrations. Brahms enjoyed the praise of his latest work as published in the Neue Freie Presse, but kept to his usual schedule of lunch in his habitual restaurant followed by a nap at his cafe. Through these descriptions Morton clarifies the way these people viewed Christianity and its role in their lives. (p. 181-184)

As I read, I felt that every event and detail assumed a broader significance, to portend what would come after. However, Morton refuses to speculate -- as many did then and have done since -- as to how Rudolf might have altered later history had he survived and found a way to implement his liberal views. For one thing, his father, the Emperor, lived and ruled until World War I was almost over, so it's far from clear that Rudolf's pessimism about his future was unfounded.

And the last paragraph of the book reads:
"On Saturday, April 20, the day before Easter, at 4 P.M., Mozart's 'Te Deum' was sung in the court Chapel, a few yards from Rudolf's old apartment. Professor Anton Bruckner drew great chords and holy harmonies from the organ to celebrate the Resurrection. While the master's august music rose among the vaultings, a different sound was heard in Bruckner's native Upper Austria at Braunau. It was the thin cry of a baby born that afternoon. The parents were Alois and Klara Hitler. They named their little one Adolph." (p. 317)
Did Hitler's thought have roots in the Viennese currents of ideas that were swirling through the lives and times that Morton described? He definitely made a case for such roots.

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