Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 

by Frederic Morton

"In the first July week of 1888 Mahler sat down in his childhood room at his father's house in Iglau and worked out great sound-metaphors of perdition, the first movement of his Second Symphony. He would call it Totenfeier or Death Celebration. And to [his] friend he would confess: 'It is the hero of my First Symphony I carry to the grave here.  Immediately arise the great questions: Why hast thou lived? . . . Why hast thou suffered? . . . Is it all nothing but a huge, terrible joke?'"

This is a cultural history of a moment in time, less than two years, when the Hapsburg Empire was about to expire. The story of Crown Prince Rudolph and his world during the years of 1888 and 1889 touched upon the lives of many of the most famous people in nineteenth century history; people who would change both our parents' lives and our own  in the twentieth century. Young men are part of this story and they include Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl, Hugo Wolf, and Arthur Schnitzler whose La Ronde was the great erotic drama of the fin de siecle. Their cultural elders were present also and Frederic Morton, whose own grandfather lived on the periphery of the story,  narrates many cultural events including the feud between Bruckner (obsessed with Wagner) and Brahms (one of whose followers was a young Arnold Schoenberg). The history reads like a novel that is both exciting and pathetic,  for an era and a century and a world were coming to an end--the great war that would destroy much of what little culture survived into the new century was lurking in the relative near-mist of future history.

A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. 1980

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