If you thought it wasn’t possible to hold Charles Schulz’s brilliant “Peanuts” comics in any higher esteem, think again. Today’s NY Times describes how scholars are pointing out that the strip’s references to music were anything but random. It turns out the notes displayed above Schroeder’s piano often referenced actual pieces that add a level of humor:
“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. … Mr. Schulz also mined Beethoven’s life for material. He had numerous books in which he underlined details about Beethoven’s love life, clothing, even his favorite recipe (macaroni with cheese).
For instance, in the strip above, with Schroder working out beforehand, the notes pictured are the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata (Op. 106), known for its extraordinary difficulty. All this is part of an exhibit, “Schulz’s Beethoven: Schroeder’s Muse,” at the cartoonist’s eponymous museum in Santa Rosa, where you can learn such details as the fact that Schulz’s favorite composer was in fact Brahms, but he just thought the name Beethoven looked funnier on the page. He was totally right.
It’s funny that this is news, since I’m sure I wasn’t alone in (sort of) discovering this as a kid. My grandmother had all the original paperbacks of the early comics, which I read over and over. She was also an accomplished pianist and music scholar, and so whenever I came across some notes in one of the strips, I’d scamper out to make her sit down at the piano and play them for me. While the historical facts surrounding “Hammerklavier” escaped me, the hand-stretching four-note chords made the joke very clear.
If you, like me, have grown even more fond of “Peanuts” as you’ve gotten older, or perhaps your curiosity has been piqued by this story, allow me to recommend the beautiful Fantagraphics “Complete Peanuts” box sets. I’ve got a couple of them, and they’re actually so exquisite it’s hard to open them up—maybe buy two and keep one in the plastic wrap.