Frederic Morton

A Nervous Splendor

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A Nervous Splendor Summary

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A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 is a work of historical nonfiction by Frederic Morton. First published in 1979, and a 1980 National Book Award Finalist, the book tells the story of the Viennese Crown Prince who goes on a tragic rampage that exposes the problems of late 19th-century Vienna and its idealistic young citizens. The book received widespread critical acclaim upon its publication for tackling such a little-explored period in European history. Morton, born Fritz Mandelbaum, grew up in Vienna. His father changed his name to Frederic Morton in the 1940s to conceal his Jewish heritage. He died in 2015 at the age of 90.

A Nervous Splendor covers the period between July 1888 and May 1889. During this ten-month period, Vienna changed dramatically. For a relatively small place, Vienna is a cultural metropolis at the time, and it attracts thinkers, artists, and musicians from across Europe. For Morton, these few months represent a cultural shift in the West generally. He deliberately chose such a narrow focus for his work so that he could discuss it in depth and detail. It’s Morton’s thesis that Vienna in July 1888 is the cultural backdrop for many significant events that alter the course of history forever.

Although A Nervous Splendor focuses primarily on one individual, Crown Prince Rudolf of Vienna, he’s surrounded by other men who are making their own significant contributions to music, art, and science. These men are Sigmund Freud, a neurologist, Johannes Brahms, a German composer, Anton Bruckner, an Austrian composer, Hugo Wolf, a Slovenian composer, and Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. A Nervous Splendor illustrates how these men cross paths, and how their actions shaped modern culture.

Known as the “Time of the Founders,” this is a period when anything seems possible. Everyone’s creating something, and everyone believes that they’re a pioneer. What’s ironic, however, is that, since everyone’s creating something grandiose and special, everyone becomes the same. The more individuals chase after glory and status, the less they understand themselves. A great irony, Morton explains, is that by chasing everything, most living in 1880s Vienna ended up with nothing.

Morton considers that living in Vienna in 1888 means living in a world of contradictions. Morton believes that, by sharing the Crown Prince’s story, he exposes everything that’s wrong in Vienna at the time. The Crown Prince is a perfect example of why the Time of the Founders is doomed to end in tragedy.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Morton explains, is a sensitive and romantic liberal. He has grand ideas, progressive beliefs, and a passion for change. On the other hand, as the Crown Prince, he’s terrified of the monarchy losing power in favor of a democratic government. He already lacks the power to implement the laws he wants, and he’s struggling under the pressure of leading the liberal cause.

For all Crown Prince Rudolf champions reform and social justice, he can’t possibly be a figurehead for it. Not as the Crown Prince. This tension between the Crown Prince’s progressive advocacy and political realities can’t endure forever. One side must win out—modernity or tradition.

On a smaller scale, artists such as Brahms and reformers like Herzl are confined by social and political limitations. Rich men serve as patrons to talented artists and thinkers, but only so long as their compositions and philosophies aren’t too radical. Vienna, Morton explains, needs someone, or something, to come along and force change. It doesn’t take long before she arrives.

Baroness Mary Vetsera is a teenage girl with the world at her feet—at least, that’s what her mother believes. Mary’s mother wants her to marry the wealthiest nobleman she can find, and Mary feels stifled and frustrated. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be free, and she spends most of her time being paraded before rich men at exclusive balls. Naturally, she’s attracted to the Crown Prince and his lofty ideals.

It’s not long before the Crown Prince and Mary are lovers, and they decide there’s no other way to escape the confines of their dying society than by killing themselves. The Crown Prince shoots himself before shooting Mary—actions that cause chaos across Vienna. Those left behind can only wonder what the death of their liberal figurehead means for them. What’s left for Vienna, unfortunately, is the new ruler, Franz Ferdinand—and the build up to World War I. It’s also at this time when Adolf Hitler is born.

A Nervous Splendor is the study of a dying golden age. Vienna’s been a cultural heartland for decades now, and it’s stagnating. Once the Crown Prince dies, the people return to the traditions and social norms that they’re familiar with. There’s been much talk of change and reform since the 1850s, but it hasn’t materialised. Morton explains that there’s a sense of the Viennese giving up. Vienna in 1889 was splendid, but it was nervous, too.