Vince Guaraldi and The Great Pumpkin Waltz
This time of year I can’t seem to get enough of Vince Guaraldi’s “The Great Pumpkin Waltz”–listening or playing. Maybe its that the fall foliage is nearing its peak, maybe its because Halloween is just around the corner, maybe it is just because it is a beautiful piece of music.
The song is, of course, inextricably linked to Charles Schultz’s beloved Peanuts television special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” which debuted back in 1966. Since I grew up in the days before VHS, I remember gleefully anticipating the annual broadcast of this animated classic. (The technicolor swirling purple “CBS Special Presentation” bumper that signaled its start is forever burned into my brain.) For those of you not familiar with this gem, a plot summary is available on wikipedia.
Vince Guaraldi (1928-76) composed and performed all of the music (accompanied by his sextet) for this special, along with fifteen other animated adventures with The Peanuts. There isn’t a lot of information about Guaraldi out there. In 1963 his “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition. In May 1965, he debuted a concert-length sacred work at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (Duke Ellington’s first Sacred Concert would take place there in December). It isn’t evident from his scores to The Peanuts shows, but he was a heck of a pianist. Listen to the dramatic, three-minute build Guaraldi lends to his live cover of “Eleanor Rigby“ before he really cuts loose.*
Guaraldi died in 1976 at the age of 47 and, with the exception of his music for The Peanuts, appears to have faded into the past. Even with the ongoing popularity of his music, neither his compositions nor performance style have received critical attention, scholarly or otherwise.** I’d love to know if there is an archive of his materials somewhere. His music for The Peanuts seems to be orphaned in the netherworld between jazz and film studies, which is unfortunate given the centrality of his work to the success of the shows.
In “The Great Pumpkin” special, for example, there is virtually no dialogue for the first 3 minutes. Rather, the characters are introduced through a series of four short vignettes, each with its own accompanying music cue. The “Linus and Lucy” theme–probably the most familiar of any of Guaraldi’s compositions–opens the show. The “Great Pumpkin Waltz” is the fifth theme introduced and appears at 4 minutes and 20 seconds. As Linus writes a “Dear Santa” letter to the Great Pumpkin, he is ridiculed by various characters. This cue runs, uninterrupted for 3 and a half minutes, gently repeating and eventually fading at the moment Linus asks Sally to spend Halloween night waiting for the Great Pumpkin. The piece appears twice more. Around 8 minutes it accompanies the kids as they make costumes and talk about trick-or-treating, running for about 1 minute and 30 seconds. When the kids stop by the pumpkin patch to taunt Linus (around 10 minutes in), we hear the piece again–this time for two minutes. Despite the fact that it only appears three times, the piece is present for seven out of the twenty-five total minutes–nearly a quarter of the total running time.
The song is designed to make such repetition feel completely natural and seamless. The form is a simple AABA. The 12-bar A theme is in c minor and both the bass and melody here form little loops. The bass line makes a chromatic descent from C to D (interrupted only once with a move to Eb in measure 4 and skipping only E-natural) over 11 bars. The D becomes the start of a ii-V-i progression that cadences into the initial C of the bass line to begin the second 12-bar phrase. This descending pattern is made all the more prominent by the static the melody line, which, with some embellishment is: G-F-Eb-F. This is similar to that of the classic lament figure (ala Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas). Alex Ross has been talking about such figures recently (here and here).*** Given the autumnal theme of the piece, a lament seems perfectly appropriate. Lest the mood feel to dark (which is hard given the jaunty waltz-time of the piece), the B section is in the dominant major.
One of the things that I love most about this piece is the way it feels beneath the hands when playing it at the piano. The harmonic progression of the main theme (Cm7, Bm7#5, Bbm13, Eb7, F(add9)/A, Abdim7, Eb/G, F#dim7, Fm7, Eb6/9, Dm7, G7b13) requires only minimal movement in the fingers to get from one chord to the next. Once I get into into the groove of the descending loop, it becomes hard to find a point of exit; improvisation flows. Guaraldi seems to have had a penchant for such descending patterns. Think of “Christmas Time is Here,” the Kyrie Eleison of his Grace Cathedral Concert, or even the rendition of Eleanor Rigby that I introduced above.
I want to end by mentioning another important musician behind the sonic world of The Peanuts. John Scott Trotter (1908-75) arranged and conducted the music for this and a few other specials. Trotter’s claim to fame is his work as the music director for Bing Crosby’s orchestra (1937-54) . There is even less information out there on him than Guaraldi, but Trotter appears to have had quite an influence on the sound of some of our most beloved music. This includes Crosby’s 1947 recording of “White Christmas”–apparently one of the greatest selling single of all time. It would be quite a treat to learn the whereabouts of his papers.
** Unfortunately Guraldi falls beyond of the case studies included in Daniel Goldmark’s excellent book Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and The Hollywood Cartoon.
*** I haven’t heard his lecture or read his most recent book, so I can’t say if “Great Pumpkin” fits into his emerging theory that popular music of the 1960s and 1970s consciously links to music of the Baroque through its bass lines.