Full Fathom Five: the catchphrase that’s lasted centuries

2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, he died at age 52. His international influence has produced a plethora of works in all artistic mediums since his death. One particular phrase, full fathom five, from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, has been repeatedly used in English-language culture over the four centuries since its composition.

The phrase (see below), addresses Ferdinand, who with his father has just gone through a shipwreck in which the father supposedly drowned.

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell. ”

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Sc. II

The Vancouver Cantata Singers prepare five (yes, five!) full fathom fives as part of our next concert, highlighting choral works inspired by William Shakespeare. The five composers listed below have each created a choral work that uniquely captures their rendition of full fathom five.

Frank Martin (Swiss)
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (Finnish),
Charles Wood (English)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (English)
Kristopher Fulton (Canadian)

In other areas, full fathom five has been the title of the TV series Hawaii Five-Oreferenced in Stephen King’s novel The Tommyknockers, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, and here in Canada, Fathom Five National Marine Park is a largely underwater national park in Georgian Bay, Ontario.

We explore Shakespeare’s truly international influence in a program of music from England, Finland, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, the United States and, of course, Canada. Grab a glass of wine, and enjoy a banquet of music as we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.

Full Fathom Five: Shakespeare in Song takes place on Sunday, April 23rd at 3:00pm at The Orpheum Annex (behind the Orpheum)

Tickets: Adults $30 | Students $20 | Youth (16 & Under) $10 

What exactly is a fathom? 

A fathom is a unit of length in the imperial and the U.S. customary systems equal to 6 feet (1.8288 metres), used especially for measuring the depth of water.



Allegri’s Miserere: the evolution of a choral masterpiece

Very few western choral works have experienced a musical evolution (alongside legendary tales) like Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. This a capella choral piece was first sung in the Sistine Chapel during the 1630s. It was considered so sublime that the Pope forbade the transcription the music and prohibited it being performed anywhere else.

According to legend, W.A. Mozart (born over 100 years after the piece was composed) had traveled to Rome as a young man and heard Allegri’s Miserere. He wrote down the music from memory later the same day he heard it, and several years later it was published in London. During the Romantic Period (another century after Mozart), Felix Mendelssohn had also transcribed Miserere, this time with more of the famous high notes we often hear today.

Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ was performed exclusively in the Sistine Chapel as part of the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, during the first 100 years of its creation. (Photo by Franco S. Origlia/Getty Images)

We face several mysteries regarding how this piece was originally heard in the 17th century. One of the main mysteries lies in the ornamentation, or embellishments, used in the piece. During the time it was first sung, the Vatican had protected the techniques singers were using in the piece. Another challenge is that very few manuscripts showed the actual notes being sung. Today, we can make credible but educated guesses on the style of ornamentation used as there were commonly accepted practices of ornamentations 400 years ago. Watch the video below to hear some of the evolutions that Allegri’s Miserere has encompassed over the centuries.

Another change that applies to more than Allegri’s works is that top vocal lines would have been sung by castratos as females were prohibited at that time from singing in churches. The most captivating moments in Allegri’s Miserere is when the top line in the quartet sings a high ‘C’. In modern times, you’ll hear this line being sung by a well-trained soprano.

Hear Allegri’s Miserere amongst other stunning choral works by Palestrina, Pizzetti, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Lotti on February 25th by the Vancouver Cantata Singers. These composers are giants of the Italian choral repertoire. Living across a span of four hundred years, each composer found exquisite beauty in glorious sonorities that underscore the rich and moving texts.

De Profundis: Palestrina to Pizzetti takes place on February 25th in one of the most acoustically satisfying venues in Vancouver, Holy Rosary Cathedral. Don’t miss it!  Tickets: Adults $30 | Students $20 | Youth (16 & Under) $10 

Hear Allegri’s Miserere sung by Vancouver Cantata Singers on February 25th, 2017