Rare piece of music discovered in 17th-century painting

Music by lesser-known composer Robert Ramsey has been found depicted in a painting at Norwich Castle Museum

Published: April 13, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Few works by Robert Ramsey have survived the centuries since he composed in the 1600s, so it was a surprise for art historians to find a perfectly preserved copy of his haunting song ‘Charon, O Charon heare a wretch opprest’ hidden in plain sight. The Paston Treasure, painted by an unknown artist is thought to have been commissioned by the wealthy Paston family around the time of 1670, and depicts two children among a mix of objects including Ramsey’s piece pictured in an open book.


In collaboration with the exhibition ‘The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World’, which opens in Norwich Castle on 23 June, the Royal College of Music has made the first ever recording of Ramsey’s song. Curator of the exhibition, Dr Francesca Vanke, highlights that ‘the recording will play throughout the exhibition and provide eminently relevant musical context.’

The Paston Treasure (close-up)

Robert Ramsey was a Scottish-born composer and organist of the 17th-century. His best known work is 'How the mighty are fallen', a vocal quartet which is most commonly performed in cathedrals and churches.

Professor Richard Wistreich of the Royal College of Music hopes the recording will ‘provide a stimulus to visitors to help them enjoy this extraordinary painting, and to discover some of the layers of musical meaning that it contains.’ He also explains how the ‘identification of the fragment of music in the picture has allowed a full reconstruction of the whole piece when combined with the only other copy held in the Bodleian Library.’

The exhibition is the result of over a decade of planning and research, and has unintentionally provided a glimpse into the music of a little known composer of the seventeenth century.


More information on the exhibition may be found here.

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