VocaMe – Kassia: Byzantine Hymns of the First Female Composer of the Occident

Time to review another album in my collection for my Just Listen project, and it turns out that I can double-book this one under Early Music Explorations as well.  I hadn’t really intended to review another early music album quite so fast, but I pick these out at random to prevent being overwhelmed by possibility.  This one also just happens to be my newest acquisition, featuring both an ensemble and a composer I’d not heard of before.  This means I’m learning as I go on this one, so bear with me.

This album — Kassia: Byzantine Hymns of the First Female Composer of the Occident — is a rare find for me, and truth be told, I lucked upon it by accident.  The title of the album had me at “hello.”  I’d always assumed the world’s first known female composer was St. Hildegard von Bingen.  Seems I was wrong about that, though I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, especially on all things Eastern Roman Empire.  Kassia is a name completely new to me.  I do love new rabbit holes to explore.

Kassia, also known as St. Kassiani and several other translated spellings, is one of two women in the Eastern Orthodox tradition from the Middle Ages that’s actually known to have written anything at all under her own name, the other being the notably respected Anna Comnena, who was not a musical composer.  So right out of the gate, we can get an idea of how special it is simply to have this music still in existence in the first place, let alone to have it come down to us through the ages for translation by modern scholars and musicians.  In addition, most of the music I have in my collection from Byzantium and surrounding areas dates to the time of the Crusades, so this is a couple of centuries earlier.

So who was Kassia?  By accounts, she was from a rich military family, intelligent and well-educated — a rarity for women in that time and place — and radiantly beautiful as well, if such accounts are to be believed (and why not, right?).  Kassia was “too smart to become empress,” which is a  backhanded compliment of the era if ever there was one.  What that really meant was she was potentially dangerous to the authority of emperor himself, which she proved in verbal discourse, and/or if she’d simply “minded her place,” she’d have had a throne.  According to the story, as set down by three Byzantine chroniclers, she was put forth in a “bride show” as a choice for the Emperor Theophilos, staged by the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne.  The young emperor liked what he saw and said to her, “Through a woman [came forth] the baser [things],” a reference to sin as a result of Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden.  Kassia responded with the verbal slap, “And through a woman [came forth] the better [things],” referencing the Christ born of the Virgin Mary.  Pride duly wounded, the emperor rejected her and chose Theodora for his wife.

Kassia went on to found a convent in western Constantinople near the Walls, becoming its first abbess.  Some say she joined the nunnery out of bitterness, while other sources cite her desire for monastic life in order to edit the liturgical books, which secure a kind of artistic renown as a result of the ensured survival of her works.  Neither explanation is wholly satisfactory, and I suspect it’s at least a combination of a two.  Hers was an era of upheaval, however.  The emperor was an iconoclast of the most violent order, and Kassia’s defense of the Orthodox veneration of icons led her to be scourged with the lash for her repeated outspokenness.  Following the emperor’s death, Theodora became regent and worked with Kassia to restore peace.

At least twenty-three hymns still used in the Byzantine liturgy today are ascribed to Kassia, the most famous of which is known as the Hymn of Kassiani.  Ironically, and sadly, that piece does not appear on this album.  The story behind it tells that the emperor, still in love with her, rode to see her in her monastery cell.  She hid from him in the closet, watching him.  Overcome with sadness for having let such a woman slip through his fingers because of pride, he wept upon reading the hymn in question, which she had been working on.  He added one line to the end, and according to legend, noticed her in her hiding place but did not speak out of respect for her privacy.  Upon his departure, she read what he’d written and finished the hymn.  When performed, the hymn lasts anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, and is perhaps the most vocally demanding piece in the entirety of the Byzantine canon.  Suffice it to say, I will duly track down a recording of this for my collection now that I know about it.

This particular album is comprised of pieces that are considerably shorter, all between just over one and just over four minutes long.  As an introduction to the music of Kassia, it is a marvel to behold for those with ears to hear.

The tracklist looks like this:

1. Doxazomen Sou Christe (We Praise, Oh Christ)
2. Ek Rizis Agathis (From a Good Root)
3. O Synapostatis Tyrannos (The Apostate Tyrant)
4. O Phariseos (The Pharisee)
5. O Vasilevy Tis Doxis Christos (Christ, the King of Glory)
6. I Edessa
7. Tin Pentachordon Lyran (The Five-Stringed Lute)
8. Igapisas Theophore (O God-Bearing Father, You Cherished)
9. Yper ton Ellinon (Above the Greeks)
10. I En Polles Amarties (The Fallen Woman)
11. Pelagia
12. Tou Stavrou Sou I Dynamis (The Power of Your Cross)
13. Olvon Lipousa Patrikon (Leaving the Wealth of Her Family)
14. Petron Ke Pavlon (Peter and Paul)
15. Isaïou Nyn Tou Prophitou (Now Isaiah the Prophet)
16. I Ton Lipsanon Sou Thiki (The Tomb of Your Remains)
17. Avgoustou Monarchisantos (Augustus, the Monarch)
18. Christina Martys (Christina, the Martyr)

The ensemble behind this album is called VocaMe.  They are:

Sigrid Hausen – mezzo-soprano
Natalia Lincoln – alto
Sabine Lutzenberger – soprano
Sarah M. Newman – soprano
Petra Noskaiová – mezzo-soprano
Gerlinde Sämann – soprano

Johann Bengen – santur (a kind of hammered dulcimer)
Michael Popp – musical director and various instruments

At the time of this writing, I still have no idea what’s actually being sung in the context of the music.  I’ll get there eventually.  The liner notes give the lyrics in Greek and, well, it’s Greek to me.  The good news is that while the rest of the liner notes are offered in German (which is also Greek to me), they do have English translations that offer a brief summary of each of the pieces.  Even so, I’m still on the outside looking in.  While that’s a limitation for the fullest appreciation of context and meaning, this is a situation to which I’m well accustomed as I listen to a wide variety of music beyond my linguistic capabilities.  When you step into the Middle Ages, English just isn’t much of a help.  As always, I accept this and move on.

Stylistically, much of what one hears upon the first listen is similar to Western monophonic plainchant, the sort of music one might expect to hear from music predating Hildegard von Bingen.  By that, I mean that it’s not complex music, which makes it an easier for new listeners to take it in.  The casual ear might dismiss the nuance of the counter-vocals or the harmonic drone vocals, but then, the casual ear wouldn’t likely give this a listen in the first place outside of mild curiosity.  Nature of the beast when dealing with Early Music as a whole, which is part of why I love introducing it to people who wouldn’t otherwise find it on their own.

What I hear is a richness that cannot be found in the canons of Western Gregorian plainchant.  There are harmonies here that would not come about in Western traditions until Hildegard, which given the cosmopolitan nature and vibrant traditions of Byzantium, it’s no surprise that what’s here is tonally more interesting.  The instrumentation backing the performances offers that flavor of the Middle East, and, of course, the different traditions of that time and place offer different scales and chords than what we are otherwise used to hearing.  The instruments chosen instantly anchor us in a place and time that is not our own, and the vocals are given an ethereal, haunting quality that offers that spiritual quality that one would seek from liturgical music.  The combination of the two elevates the listener to a greater experience of the whole.  It’s beautiful, and it must be experienced to appreciate.

This YouTube video is a rather muddied and low quality offering (ok, it’s terrible), but it’ll give you an idea of what’s here.  The further you go in the music, the better it gets.  If you like what you hear, I’d definitely recommend the CD presentation for the full effect, without the digital artifacts gunking up an otherwise extraordinary performance.

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