Quotation of the day

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.)

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  1. Yvonne says

    The contrast is even more marked with baroque music. There are those (performers and listeners) who regard it as pretty and regular and calming, easy, a kind of Muzak. And there are those who understand that a huge part of baroque music’s expressive vocabulary is “ugliness”: roughening or distortion of sound, as well as “playing around” and so on.

    Just consider the meaning of “baroque.” It doesn’t at all mean precise, or restrained. It means elaborate, very fanciful, covered with ornaments. Or, from the Oxford Concise dictionary, “highly ornate and extravagant in style.”

  2. Suzanne Derringer says

    I am walking around Vienna these days, noting that every cobblestone, every tile in a church floor, is slightly different in shape from all others – they’re like snowflakes, or leaves. And the streets are not straight: they curve, they meander, the come to an unexpected end, or an equally unexpected vista opens up. There is no mechanical, industrial exactness here – the symmetry and rhythm are organic.

    As you’ve noted, ‘classical’ musical performance used to be more like that. Metronomic precision is death; merely accurate reproduction of notes on a page is death. Remember Toscanini’s famous tirade when one poor bastard in the orchestra held one note a fraction of a second too long? ‘You are playing a fly-speck!’ he shouted. The poor fellow thought it was a dotted something-or-other. One really has to beware of paying too much attention to those fly-specks, intentional or otherwise.

  3. says

    Actually, Mozart’s music can be a lot more complex than Palmer would have us believe. I wonder if he is familiar with the symphony no 41″Jupiter”, which has such ingenious and complex counterpoint

    in the finale. And remember the Emperor Joseph, who allegedly accused Mopzart of using “Too many notes” after hearing a performance of “The Abduction From the Seraglio?”.

  4. Bob says

    I suspect you’re right Greg, and that interpretation does play a major role in Palmer’s assessment. Mozart was especially adept at providing just the kind of rhythmic variety Palmer claims is lacking in the music, but it often shows up in things like irregular phrase lengths–I’m listening right now to the opening movement of the C major String Quintet, which seems to be all about trying to normalize the 5-bar phrase–or in the use of silence as a means of temporarily disrupting forward momentum.

    These are important components in Mozart’s compositional arsenal, and I’d be willing to bet that his contemporaries responded to them in very different ways than we do.

    I’m sure they did. One common reaction was that Mozart’s music was very complicated, or even cold and academic. Which certainly opens up a fascinating abyss. The music can be seen in so many different ways. Utterly simple and beautiful (a common worshipful view)…so simple that it’s primitive (Palmer’s view)…cold, complex, and academic (some of Mozart’s contemporaries)…asymmetrical in unexpected ways (a view we might form by studying the scores). Then add some improvisation during a performance, and it gets even more complex.

  5. Jacob says

    Palmer’s quote makes an interesting counterpart to this Stephen Brown article:


    “It is true that one doesn’t normally speak of Mozart and Sid Vicious in the same breath, but they do have this in common: primitivism. Rock’n’roll began as a primitivist movement, and it renews itself with mini-

    primitivisms, of which punk is just one example. To see Mozart as a primitivist is a little harder, since his style is so identified with the civilized and the rational, things we think of as anti-primitive, and yet the Classical movement in music, like its companion neoclassicism in art, owed everything to the primitivist desire to begin anew by stripping away the false and inessential. Écrasez l’infâme. To the Baroque’s heavy sauces, multiple courses, and thickly layered combinations of tastes and textures, the Classical would propose a nouvelle cuisine.”

  6. says

    Jeez. These kind of comments just make the hair on the back of your neck stand.

    I’m going to dismiss Palmer’s assertion. Not for perceiving Mozart’s music as metrically regular, which it is (although he excludes the triple meter and hemiola, which is polyrhytmic and can be found in Mozart’s music), but for two other reasons.

    First, Palmer overlooks that polyrhythms did have a prominent place in the written music of the Renaissance, predating the Classical era. Did Palmer mean to suggest that Mozart is somehow to be looked at as a regression from the polyrhytmic motets of say, Monteverdi, Orlando di Lasso or Thomas Tallis?

    One could argue–which I won’t, but one could–that polyrhythms are actually one of the MOST primitive forms of musical composition. We see polyrythms in all kinds of tribal/non-Western musics. (Please remember that I’m not the one who brought up the “P” word; I’m only using it cuz Palmer did.)

    Modern polyrhythms only seem sophisticated compared to Classical metrical regularity because we are looking backward at them.

    Secondly, Palmer inaccurately characterizes Mozart’s music as primitive because of what it does not allow.

    Regulation can be a sign of sophistication, as I believe it is in terms of what became the aesthetics of Classical music.

    Classical music in particular became what it was by sorting out binary rhythmic phrasing from the more amorphous phrases of Baroque music; by making things regular.

    Regulation may be stodgy, but it is by no means primitive.

    You took the bait, didn’t you?

    I don’t think we get anywhere writing polemics about why Palmer isn’t right, or about why he is. I think it’s more productive to ask why he’d think what he thinks, what point of view would lead to his thinking.

    I’d love to see the interview in the film, to hear the quote in its full context. I can imagine that Palmer might have been responding to people who think blues is primitive music, a view that I can see coming (especially in past decades) from the classical world.

    So he’s turning that view on his head, and showing that it’s easy enough to find reasons why something all the serious people respect — Mozart — could be called primitive. I find that a wonderfully fruitful line of thought, without wanting to take any stand on who’s right. My own thinking gets expanded. That’s good enough for me.

    (And if anyone wants a fuller answer for me, I’d simply say that different kinds of music not surprisingly do different things. Which things you prefer — which you judge fulfilling, and which you find less so — is your own choice. Which you don’t have to defend, but if you want to enter into any debates, then be responsible, and make sure you understand what’s going on in types of music that might not be your favorites.)

  7. Yvonne says

    @Robert, @Counter Critic: Although the quote sets out giving the impression that Palmer’s talking about Mozart’s music, he then begins to clarify what he means. (That’s understandable, it’s a verbal quote, we begin with imprecise statements and clarify them in speech all the time.) And so, as Greg and others observe, Palmer’s ultimately talking about the way Mozart is performed and an aesthetic approach or attitude to the music more so than the notes themselves.

    And to give a tiny, practical example. You can often find in Mozart’s minuets a practical reflection of the hemiola rhythm (three beats across two 3/4 bars) of the original dance – a basic kind of rhythmic complexity. But how many performers bring that kind of thing out? And how many try to squash the musical idea back into a neat 3/4 because they think that’s how it should be? Listen to the latter kind of interpretation and you’re not going to pick up on that rhythmic subtlety.

  8. says

    I find this kind of quotation annoying. It reflects a reaction to one type of musical interpretation of Mozart’s music, one that is pretty much discredited today. The same thing has happened with Baroque music. There were some really horrendous performances of Bach in the 50s and 60s. The problems with them were not so much that they played only what was on the page, but that they *ignored* what was on the page, because the playing philosophy was all about long lines. The result was that the performers completely smoothed out all the beautiful bumps and wrinkles that Bach wrote into the music (I’m talking mostly here about string and wind players ignoring Bach’s very clear bowings/phrasings in things like obligato arias from the cantatas).

    The Early Music movement, despite its multitude of sins, fixed that, and nobody performs Bach that way any more.

    Well, sort of. I’ve found that professional players sight-reading Baroque music will basically have long notes and short notes and nothing in between. Anything that is not slurred/bowed will be staccato. And string players will add their own stylistically nonsensical modern bowings. The result is a generic, uninteresting style that does lend itself to Muzak. But it has nothing to do with what the music actually means (or what the notation actually says).

    Taruskin has made a career of railing against the larger portion of Sturgeon’s Law in the Early Music movement. The Palmer comment seems like a similar situation.

    In other words, it’s easy to pick off the crap performers. It’s much less easy to dismiss the top 10% of Mozart performances, in 1997 or 1947 or 2007.

    David W. Fenton


  9. says

    “I’d love to see the interview in the film, to hear the quote in its full context.”

    I’ve seen the film. Palmer was responding to the notion that blues music – specifically the music of “rural” blues musicians (music with just a voice and a guitar) – was somehow a “primitive” form of music ie music that is simpler, easier to digest, easier to play, made by stupid people, etc. He turns this notion which is rooted in deep prejudice on its ear by pointing out that the music he loves is as if not more sophisticated as Mozart.

    Just didn’t see that clarified in the thread and thought I’d chime in.

  10. says

    You’re totally right, Greg. I took the bait and ran with it. And I have a tendency toward the polemical. It isn’t my fault: I come from a long line of preachers! So, naturally, I love to debate a point.

    I also had a feeling that Palmer was responding to first-blood drawn from detractors of blues.

    But he definitely brings up two points in this one quote. And it’s very clear that in the beginning, he’s citing a supposed lack of polyrhythms/cross rhythms in Mozart’s music as primitive. I just wanted to point out that this specific example doesn’t make sense; nor is it necessarily even true.

    I would just hate for people who don’t have a broad understanding of music to read that quote and be like, “Yeah, Mozart’s totally primitive cuz he doesn’t have like, polyrhythms.”


    Well, CC, I’m a debater myself. I’ve swallowed plenty of bait in my time.

    Yet another moral of this story — building on your last point — is that there are normally two (or more sides) to any argument, and it’s always good to think about why some strong polemic, however convincing it seems, might be wrong. (That includes polemics of mine!)

  11. says

    First, I’m not Greg :)

    The film I saw where Robert made comments about Mozart is called Deep Blues. Here is a link (to a safe site) about the film:


    I don’t think Palmer appears in Bluesland, but I could be wrong. I have not seen that film. And I’m not 100 percent convinced that the quote Greg cited (by way of Dave Marsh) is actually something word for word Palmer said. But I do remember Palmer’s comment in Deep Blues brought up rhythm and Mozart in order to make a point about how we place a value on music and how that falls apart quickly if you just do a little listening (and I guess transcribing).

    All that said, yes, I myself can enjoy Skip James and a Mozart opera. I just can’t get with a hierarchy of music based on “complexity” or skin color.