Imagine her surprise in 1990 when Ellen Taaffe Zwilich saw her name mentioned in a Peanuts cartoon. The comic strip made reference to Zwilich as a composer who “just happens to be a woman.” And Zwilich is not just any female composer, but also the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music and earlier had become the first woman to earn a doctorate in composition from Juilliard. In 1995 she was appointed to the first Composers Chair in the history of Carnegie Hall, and it was during that period that she conceived of writing a piece of music based on the Peanuts characters.
Peanuts Gallery is a half-hour documentary that tells the story of the special friendship between cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and Zwilich and how this relationship ultimately resulted in Zwilich’s composition, “Peanuts Gallery for Piano and Orchestra.” The program features a performance of this piece by the Florida State University Symphony Orchestra, interviews with Zwilich and Jean Schulz (the cartoonist’s wife), plus clips of Peanuts and rarely seen footage of Charles Schulz himself. This is the first time that this independently produced program will be shown on NJN in the State of the Arts time slots on Friday, March 16 at 8:30 pm, with a rebroadcast on Wednesday, March 21 at 11:30 p.m.
Eric Schultz, no relation to Charles, a Trenton resident and producer/director of the documentary, trained as a cellist, earning a bachelors of music in 1984 from the New School of Music in Philadelphia. His father, now retired, had a market research company, Graham Research Service, in New York. During the 1980s Eric Schultz performed with orchestras and chamber groups in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Michigan. In graduate school at Michigan State University, where he earned a masters in cello performance in 1986, he studied with members of the Juilliard String Quartet during their chamber music residencies. He developed an interest in televison production after winning a competition that led to a performance on Michigan Public Televison of the “Elegie for Cello and Piano” by Gabriel Faure.
Shultz first came to know Zwilich when he worked as the producer for cultural affairs at Michigan State University Public TV, his first job after earning his masters (he continued to freelance as a cello player and taught music lessons). He produced a documentary about Zwilich and the story behind her composition, Symphony No. 4, which was inspired by the renowned gardens at Michigan State University. The resulting program, “The Gardens: Birth of a Symphony,” was distributed by PBS in 2000 and aired on NJN in 2002. When Zwilich was interested in telling the story behind Peanuts Gallery for Piano and Orchestra,” she contacted Schultz, who had moved to NJN’s State of the Arts, to produce the project.
As Zwilich planned this work, she became good friends with Charles Schulz and his wife. In interviews with Zwilich and archival footage of Schulz, viewers can sense the deep admiration they had for one another and the awe they felt for each other’s talents. What seemed like second nature to Schulz — putting drawings on paper — was not to Zwilich — who put notes on paper. Interviews with Mrs. Schulz fill in the gaps and bring the viewer up to date since the beloved Charles Schulz, known as Sparky to those closest to him, died in 2000.
Peanuts Gallery for Piano and Orchestra premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1997 and has since been played by such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. The piece is made up of six movements: “Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy,” “Lullaby for Linus,” “Snoopy Does the Samba,” “Charlie Brown’s Lament,” “Lucy Freaks Out,” and “Peppermint Patty and Marcie Lead the Parade.” Zwilich says she “tried to capture something in the nature of each character in short musical sketches.”
— Jamie Saxon
Peanuts Gallery on NJN, Friday, March 16 at 8:30 pm; and Wednesday, March 21, at 11:30 p.m. The half-hour program is also available via video streaming at njn.net after the original broadcast. Additionally, the program is repeated on NJN’s JerseyVision available on Comcast Digital Cable in New Jersey. (Check www.njn.net/digital/schedule.html for listings.)