Albert Einstein famously said that Mozart's music “is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.”
Mozart's music is loved for conveying a sense of sweet perfection - a perfection beyond any technical mastery of harmony or counterpoint, for there are plenty of composers that are recognized as far greater masters of such things, and by comparison to whom Mozart can seem divinely naive. The question then is whether in our age of a greater awareness of earlier music, there are other masters who achieved a similar spiritual radiance of untroubled perfection - of an intensity perhaps even more brilliant than that of Mozart. In an age that is beginning to question the centrality of the Austro-German musical tradition in music the question is becoming all the more pertinent and necessary.
Gregorio Allegri (1585 - 1652) The Miserere Allegri: Miserere; Messe Vidi Turbam Magnum; Motets by Allegri is such a breathtakingly beautiful work that copying it or performing it outside of the Sistine Chapel was once forbidden. This was music as treasured as any of the other great works in the Sistine Chapel as those by Raphael or Michelangelo. Legend has it that Mozart memorized it in full after hearing it just once and wrote it all out - although no such copy has survived, suggesting the story may be apocryphal. If true perhaps this is the sort of angelic purity to which Mozart aspired - though listening to the Miserere you may seriously wonder whether Mozart managed to attain the same heights.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) In terms of the sheer heavenly sense of celestial perfection in the infinitely thoughtful placement of every note, Palestrina surpasses any composer in history. The subtle avoidance of any dissonance coupled with the soaring melismata of his thematic material and his subtle use of counterpoint are extraordinary in the stillness of their ultra-refined artfulness. By comparison to this absolutely anything seems effortful. Tallis Scholars Sing PalestrinaVergini: Spiritual Madrigals Missa Ave ReginaPALESTRINA: Master of the Renaissance 4CD Box Set (Pro Cantione Antiqua). Even in Mozart's time, when the Italian tradition still dominated over a slowly emerging flegling Austro-German school, his teachers would have likely held Palestrina up to him as model from which to learn counterpoint andin setting text to music.
Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 - 1517) Of all of the composers of the Prima Prattica, Isaac's music stands out for the sheer soaring grandeur of his music. Missa PaschalisMissa De Apostolis / Motets. It is a sweet grandeur like a sweeping lush, landscape - so serene, yet so sublime at once. His contemporary Josquin writes music so much darker, melancholic, and restless by comparison - like Beethoven in comparison to Mozart. There is such a celestial perfection to Isaac's music that perhaps no music in history can rival it. Just listen to the motet Angeli Archangeli on Missa Mi-Mi - truly angelic music. So Isaac must be the final and possibly greatest composer listed here, whose celestial heights leave Mozart and just about any other composer you might care to name far, far behind.
Is any of this music truly more perfect than Mozart's? That is for you to decide. Many will be horrified by the mere suggestion and will vigorously disagree. And passionate disagreement is welcome, but whatever the case the age of the unquestioned dominance of the Austro-German composers is over and we must be receptive to the fact that before them there was an Italian - and before the Italian, a Flemish tradition in music that has lapsed into neglect. As the mastery of these earlier composers becomes better known the extraordinary beauty of their achievements makes it impossible to talk of Mozart as George Bernard Shaw naively once did that his is "the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God."
p.s. See my reviews on select individual items for further details on the music and the composers