How “Peanuts” Taught Us About Beethoven

noah | January 14, 2009 10:30 am

Sure, when one thinks of the music of Peanuts, Vince Guaraldi’s breezy score for A Charlie Brown Christmas comes to mind first. But a new exhibit at the California museum dedicated to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz is positing that the real music of the cartoon was provided by Ludwig van Beethoven, who served as the muse of the piano prodigy Schroeder, and whose scores often showed up in the strips.

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

“The music is a character in the strip as much as the people are, because the music sets the tone,” Mr. Meredith said. To understand what gave Schroeder chills, he said, you have to listen to the musical passage. “When you actually hear the symphony, the whole thing feels completely different.”

The exhibit allows viewers to actually juxtapose the music with the strips, one of which is excerpted in the above screencap:

In a strip from 1953 Schroeder embarks on an intensive workout. In the last two panels he walks to his piano and begins playing furiously. The eighth notes above Schroeder’s head are from the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata (Op. 106), a piece so long, artistically complex and technically difficult that it is referred to as the “Giant” Sonata.

God, this is going to make me want to buy all those old Peanuts collections and a bunch of low-price Beethoven collections, and pore over the Schroeder strips (and the ones celebrating Beethoven’s birthday, in particular; of the 49 years that Schroeder appeared in the strip, his birthday was celebrated 27 times). The best part? Schulz’s favorite composer was actually Brahms—he just thought Beethoven’s name translated better to the funny pages.

Listening to Schroeder: ‘Peanuts’ Scholars Find Messages in Cartoon’s Scores [NYT via peterfeld]