Secret Beethoven subtexts in Peanuts

There’s a great piece in the New York Times today about Charles Schulz’s use of the music of Beethoven in the Peanut’s comics.


Schroeder plays the Hammerklavier (Photo: Peanuts/United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)

In the world of “Peanuts,” of course, Schroeder was the Beethoven-obsessed music nerd who lost patience when Lucy interrupted his practice and who called time-outs as a baseball catcher to share composer trivia with the pitcher. Yet musicologists and art curators have learned that there was much more than a punch line to Charles Schulz’s invocation of Beethoven’s music.

“If you don’t read music and you can’t identify the music in the strips, then you lose out on some of the meaning,” said William Meredith, the director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, who has studied hundreds of Beethoven-themed “Peanuts” 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.

Had I known one could specialize in the analysis of comic strips, I might have become a musicologist….

Schulz was a long time subscriber of the Oakland Symphony in the years when my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, was there. Gerhard had a number of treasured Schulz originals that he had drawn for fundraisers for the orchestra. The one which held pride of place in his flat had Charlie Brown saying the Oakland Symphony was “my kind of orchestra.” Apparently, Schulz, for all his well-documented love of Beethoven and Brahms, thought the San Francisco Symphony’s programming in those years was a little dull.  

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American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Secret Beethoven subtexts in Peanuts”

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