Composer of the Week: Saint Kassiani the Hymnographer

This week’s composer of the week has much in common with a composer we visited a few weeks ago. Kassiani (also known as Kassia) was, like Hildegard, an abbess, poet and hymnographer. She lived from about 810 AD until 865 AD. She was a daughter of what is variously known as the Byzantine, East Roman, or simply Roman, Empire. In the West there is a common belief that the Roman Empire ended in 476 AD. This received wisdom is, quite simply, false. The Roman Empire continued in the East, with its capital in Constantinople, whose previous name was Byzantium, until 1453 AD. This is why, if you read about Saint Kassiani, you will see her described as “Byzantine”, or “East Roman”.

Piety and Politics

Kassiani’s name derives from the Latin Cassius, although she herself would have grown up speaking Greek as her mother tongue. Greek was the language of culture and metaphysics throughout the Roman Empire, even in the time of St Paul, which is why he composed his letters (even to Rome itself) in Greek. We know that her family was a wealthy and prominent one, because she participated in the court of the future Emperor Theophilos the iconoclast. The term iconoclast in our times refers to a person who does not follow polite conventions and does not show respect to the things that most people hold in high esteem.

In the 9th century, the same word denoted a opponents to the use of images in Christian worship. The context for this fratricidal conflict is fear and external pressure. In this period, huge swathes of the known world, from Africa to India, were groaning under the abattoir-like tyranny of the Abbasid Caliphate, which had recently come to power through a massive and rather predictable slaughter of the ruling Ummayyad Caliphate. The tedious regularity of the massacres makes for a rather discouraging tale. Some factions within the Byzantine Empire had become convinced that the calamities befalling their Eastern provinces were a kind of divine retribution for the use of religious imagery. At any rate, Saint Kassiani was not an iconoclast but sought to conform dutifully to the doctrine and practice of the Church.

The Abbess and her Work

It was because of this deep devotion that Kassiani relinquished her wealth and privileges to seek monastic life. At around 30 years of age, she established a convent. It was here that she wrote her liturgical music, a large amount of which has survived to the present day. Over 20 of the hymns that she wrote are included in the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church. The fact of their survival is remarkable, given that the buildings themselves are bare, maliciously defiled ruins.

Most of her compositions are troparia. A troparion is a type of hymn sung in all Orthodox Churches. It is usually a short, memorable poem set to music and used at specific points in liturgy. You can hear several of them in the video above. There is another great Byzantine troparion at the end of this article.

Her Legacy

Unlike Hildegard, whose glorious development of the Gregorian idiom is sadly all but unknown in the West, Kassiani’s music is alive and well in the East. Her most famous work is a hymn based on Matthew 26:6-16, a gospel scene in which a woman anoints Christ with expensive oil. This hymn is written in the Plagal Fourth Tone. Byzantine music, to this day, maintains an intricate system of tones or modes that transcend the limited categories of “major” and “minor”. This poignant hymn is sung on Holy Wednesday, the Wednesday of the week of Easter, every year. The hymn concludes with stirring words: Μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς, ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος. “Do not turn from your servant, you who have boundless mercy”.

The Byzantine inheritance is like a huge tree, stoic, damaged yet sturdy. The hymnody of Kassiani is one verdant, living branch of this tree. There are many reasons to delve into Byzantine art, culture and music, only the least of which is its staggering beauty. The inheritance of this vigorous culture lives on through the many nations that converted to the Truth within its influence. Slavic, Arabic, African and Asiatic Christianity all draw on this common root and give their own unique life to it. The empire that bled white to defend its people and its inheritance from the deep night that lay all around it, has never truly been extinguished.

ΣώσονΚύριε, τον λαόν Σου και ευλόγησον την κληρονομίαν Σου

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