All year, I’ve been laying the groundwork for this column, which shall become the magnum opus of all my columns – a celebration of the 250th birthday of Ludwig von Beethoven! Yes, there’s 12 months’ worth of research packed in the following paragraphs. (Full disclosure: I crammed those 12 months’ worth of research into the last 17 minutes as I rushed to meet the Daily News’ deadline.)
December 16 is the big sestercentennial day, which is actually a bigger day in my family than it is for all the Beethoven fans in the world combined, because it’s my No. 2 son’s birthday! Happy birthday, you lil’ whippersnapper!
There are a lot of ways to learn about Beethoven’s life and works. For example, there are vast resources available through the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University – “the only such center in the Americas devoted solely to Beethoven.” Or there’s the source where, as a child, I first encountered Ludwig – the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Schulz.
Luckily for lamebrained weekly columnists who only do 17 minutes of research, there’s an existential confluence between Beethoven and Charlie Brown: The Brilliant Center’s website has a large online “exhibit” exploring in-depth how Schulz wove Ludwig into “Peanuts” over 49 years!
So I won’t drag you through a dry, scholarly treatise about Beethoven! – let’s have a good time guided by Charlie Brown and the piano-playing Schroeder!
Item: When Schulz created the classical-music-loving Schroeder, he debated which famous composer should be the boy’s muse. It came down to this: “Beethoven’s name was the “funniest,” he said. “I don't believe it would be half as funny if Schroeder admired Brahms." (Note: This is the same theory behind the use of odd numbers in a joke; example: “I researched for 17 minutes” is waaaaay funnier than “I researched for 18 minutes.”)
Item: Schulz often illustrated his strips with actual drawings of Beethoven’s scores. One of the earliest snatches of score appears when Schroeder is playing the famous “Moonlight” Sonata. Charlie Brown enters in the second frame to crack a couple jokes – “Well, Schroeder, ol’ pal! I see you’re ‘Bach’! Where have you been ‘Haydn’?” In the last panel, Charlie Brown is running away. From Schroeder’s toy piano flying toward his noggin.
Item: Schroeder loved Beethoven – would Beethoven have loved Schroeder? Schulz maybe sorta answered that question with a sweatshirt he made featuring a drawing of Beethoven. . .wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of Schroeder.
Item: The Brilliant Center has a replica of the instrument that Beethoven would’ve actually used and composed with – a fortepiano. It’s way different than our modern grand pianos. The replica is referred to as a Dulcken fortepiano. I understand that, in the right hands, it can sound like both a duck and a chicken. At the same time!
Item: One of Beethoven’s symphonies was dedicated to the King of Prussia. The delighted King promised Beethoven “a diamond ring as a token of my sincere admiration.” However, the ring showed up with a reddish stone instead, and was appraised for waaaaay less than a diamond. Had the diamond been replaced in transit? Was the wrong ring sent, because the diamond one was the King’s Precious? Who knows? Anyway, Beethoven needed some cabbage, so he quickly sold it.
Item: Maybe Beethoven was short on cash because he loved macaroni and cheese. Really. But we’re not talking Kraft-in-a-box. Macaroni with Parmesan cheese was expensive in Beethoven's day. Macaroni cost three times as much as rice, and Parmesan cheese was an expensive import from Italy. (When Schroeder mentions to Lucy that the girl he marries must be able to make excellent mac and cheese, she replies, “How did Beethoven feel about cold cereal?”)
Item: In the daily black-and-white “Peanuts” comic strips, the effect of shading was achieved by using something called Zipatone. Zipatone is a clear adhesive film covered with patterns of dots – the artist would trim it to the shape and size needed in each panel, stick it on, and voila!, you get that multi-dotted visual effect that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever read a comic strip. I always wondered how that was done! Imagine!. . .Beethoven as my gateway to understanding comic art techniques! And the expense of mac-and-cheese in the early 1800s! And how to choose the funniest name!
And all this makes me think Schroeder was absolutely right! – when Lucy asks him “What’s life all about anyway?,” he shouts “The meaning of life is BEETHOVEN!”