Some people will hate this one. It’s something the distinguished rock and blues critic Robert Palmer said in a film called Bluesland (I found the quote in a book by Dave Marsh, The Beatles’ Second Album):
My feeling is that if you want to listen to something primitive, you should listen to Mozart. Because if you hear Mozart, there’s almost no rhythmic variation in it, it’s 1-2-3-4 forever. No cross-rhythms or polyrhythms to speak of. The way that music’s interpreted, all of the tonal qualities of the instruments tend to be very clean and pristine. There’s no kind of textural variety like you would get in the blues, in terms of roughening the texture out on certain words, playing around with the pitch on certain words. Nothing like that in Mozart.
So if you hate that…well, first be thankful for the chance to see ourselves as others see us, to see classical music as it might strike a highly literate — literate musically, as well as verbally — person from the outside world. Palmer (who died in 1997, and whom I knew when he wrote about pop music for the New York Times knows as much about music as anyone in the classical world. It’s just a different kind of music.
And this is what he honestly thinks. Remember, too, that he might know blues better than we do, and hears a lot of things in it that we might not notice. Or that we might take for granted, not understanding how crucial they are to how the blues works. Or might devalue, because classical music puts a higher value on the (written) musical text, not on the variable sound of the music as it’s performed.
Note also that Palmer says “the way that music’s interpreted,” suggesting that there might be another way to play it — as there surely was back in Mozart’s time, when at the very least the rules about changing the text, improvising changes as you played, were a lot freer than they are now.
For the fullest understanding of music, we need to integrate his view with ours. Various kinds of music have strengths all their own, and Palmer is saying that blues has strengths we don’t find in Mozart (at least as we play him now).
(And if you think Palmer is harsh, read Dave Marsh — in the Beatles book — on the music education classes he had to take in school. I’ll quote that another time.)