Wednesday, 7 November 2018

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS – (RE)INTRODUCING KASSIANI, THE FIRST KNOWN FEMALE BYZANTINE COMPOSER AND ONE OF THE EARLIEST COMPOSERS IN HISTORY WITH EXTANT SCORES

Bust of Terpsikhore, Greek goddess of choral song and dance


Today we are traveling back in time to ancient Greece, to discover the very roots of vocal Western Classical Music.

The date is 810 CE, the place, Constantinople – a bustling city located in the heart of the Byzantine Empire. In this year, a young girl would be born – her parents would name her Kassiani (or, “Kassia,” in short form) after the Latin Cassius – a strong, male, Roman name that would serve the child well into womanhood as she became to embody the attributes typically associated with her male counterparts. Having been fortunate enough to have been born into wealth and provided an education in Classical Greek studies, Kassiani would excel in musicianship and in composition, in literacy and philosophy and in razor-sharp repartée – learned skills often denied to young girls and women of lower classes.

In adulthood, the devout Kassiani would become abbess of her own nunnery (some 300 years prior to the famed Hildegard von Bingen) following a heated tête-à-tête with the future Roman Emperor Theophilos (the Iconoclast), who by all accounts, wished to wed the rumored beauty once laying eyes upon her at a “bride show” set up by his step-mother, the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne – that was, until the ever wise Kassiani out-witted the young Bachelor in his own attempt at debate.

Iconography of Kassiani (Kassia) holding her
eponymous Hymn of Kassiani.
Far from the subservient or demure sort, Kassia would famously thwart the advances of Theophilos as he approached the young woman from the assembled lineup of potential brides with the opening line:

 “Through a woman [came forth] the baser [things],"

referencing the suffering of man as a result of the sinful transgression of Eve in the Garden of Eden, a prideful Theophilus could hardly believe the insightful retort which would escape from the lips of the young woman who stood firmly before him: 

“And through a woman [came forth] the better [things]”

Kassia responded to a shocked audience and an outraged Theophilos - her reply a direct reference to the hope of salvation through the incarnation of Christ through the Holy Mother Mary. Surely, any decent young Greek lady ought to know her role in society, and stay in her place – such was the norm in ancient Greece. With these defiant, erudite few words, Kassiani flipped gender roles over onto themselves, eschewing any suggestion that she was less than capable of matching any nemesis – male or female, wit for wit.

Theophilos outright rejected the outspoken Kassiani in favor of the more demure Theodora, future patron saint. It was a matter of meager consequence to the young Kassiani, who would proceed to excel on her own, founding her own monastery abutting Constantinian walls at the tender age of 33 where she would begin to focus on composition. The abbess would pen many liturgical hymns – one of which – the eponymous Hymn of Kassiani, also known as the Hymn of the Fallen Woman, continues to be chanted in the present day during Holy Week.

Theophilos chooses Theodora as his wife 830 (Kassia at L)
Approximately fifty of Kassiani's hymns – much of them in didactic eastern chant – survive, 23 of which are included in the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church. Kassiani was also a prolific producer of secular verse, among which many are counted as gnomic – that is, in epigram or aphorism form.

The abbess would also focus her finely honed crafts outside of the nunnery, working closely with the neighboring monastery of Stoudios (notable for re-editing Byzantine liturgical books, which would include much of Kassiani's work) through the 9th and 10th centuries.

Kassiani's contribution to Western Classical Music must not be oversimplified. From a retrospective lens, she exists as one first composers in history to have interpretable, surviving manuscripts – scores from the ancient era that reveal the humble beginnings of vocal music from the time of monophonic chant to the present era. Her hymns continue to be appear in the Byzantine liturgy to this day, and her status as a female polymath ranks her as one of the most influential women in history.

Kassiani would live out her final days composing poetry and setting them to music and penning both philosophical and literary works.

A small sample of her music can be heard in the video below. German early music ensemble VocaMe perform:



- Rose.

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