Wednesday 5 May 2021

Hymns of Kassiani: Cappella Romana explores the music of the earliest known female composer

The Hymns of Kassiani; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records
The Hymns of Kassiani
; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Rediscovering the voice of one of the earliest female composers, writing for the Byzantine Church in the ninth century

Founded by Alexander Lingas in 1991, the vocal ensemble Cappella Romana specialises in combining scholarship with performance, exploring the musical traditions of the Christian East and West, and they have become well-known for their performances of Byzantine and Orthodox chant. On this new disc, Hymns of Kassiani on Cappella Records, Cappella Romana and Alexander Lingas explore the music of the ninth century composer Kassia (Kassiani), the earliest known female composer, with music for Christmas and for Holy Week (Orthodox Easter this year was 2 May 2021).

Kassia's name is not unknown, the Hymn of Kassiani is included in the Eastern Orthodox Church's rite for morning prayer on Holy Wednesday. This hymn casts the repentance of the sinful woman annointing Jesus' feet from the Gospel of St Luke as a powerful first-person drama. But the aim of this new disc is to go beyond the Hymn of Kassiani and to explore her rarely performed hymns, music which is not part of the regular modern liturgy.

So who was Kassia?

She was born into a well-to-do family in Constantinople in the early ninth century and early on was religiously interested, corresponding distinguished contemporary (male) religious figures and eventually becoming a nun and an abbess. She wrote the texts and the music for her hymns, as well as non-liturgical epigrams and gnomic verses.  Her hymns came at a time when the Byzantine Rite in Constantinople was in flux, with the local version becoming influenced the Rite imported from Jerusalem. It is for this latter, that Kassia's hymns were written and whilst they may have originally been written for her own monastery they soon had great currency. The oldest known source to contain any of her hymns is a ninth-century hymnal for the basilica of the Anastasis (the church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. Most of her music is in the form of hymns written to be interpolated between verses of the chanted psalms.

Of course, we have to be careful how we interpret these manuscripts. A stable accurate intervallic notation, Middle Byzantine Notation (MBN) did not appear until 1177, but the variants of surviving Kassianic melodies are close and stable enough to give us some sort of security in the music. Modern scholarship of MNB and its interpretation has changed and this disc is based on new musical editions of the manuscripts created by Dr Ioannis Arvanitis.

We hear music for Christmas and for Holy Week. The programme starts with excerpts of the standard Psalms from the Vespers of Christmas Eve which are followed by three of Kassia's hymns. Then comes a long sequence  of Kassia's hymns from the Triodion and for Easter Week; the Triodion being a compilation of extra material for Lent and Holy Week originally gathered in three volumes, hence the name.

The disc ends with two versions of the Hymn of Kassiani, first a standard medieval version from a 13th century south Italian mansucript. And then a far more florid version attributed to Meletios the Monk and reworking the original in the Byzantine style of the late 13th century. This latter lasts a whopping 25 minutes, as compared to the 8 minutes of the first version. 

In fact, much of the music on this disc is expansive, you need time to sit and allow the chant to expand and fill your consciousness. The music moves between the solid chant to more florid, flowing sections, the result is imaginative and I find it immensely appealing. 

Lingas uses an ensemble of 15 voices, both men and women, and varies the textures by having verses sung by men only and by women only. But much depends on the singers in this style of music, for a start, apart from the occasional use of drones this is unaccompanied and unharmonised. Then there is the use of ornament and other inflections of the vocal lines. Here the performances are seductively intriguing. I have to confess that I know very little about Byzantine chant, but I love the sound world and this disc has introduced my to a new voice.

The booklet contains an extensive and finely explanatory article by Alexander Lingas about Kassia, her music and its place in the Byzantine liturgy. There is also a selected bibliography, full texts and translations. My only moan is that the original Greek is given only in the Greek alphabet and not transliterated, so it requires some knowledge to follow what the singers are actually singing.

This is the first volume in what is planned as a series covering recordings of all of Kassiani's surviving works. Personally, I can't wait for the next instalment.

This isn't background music; it is not the sort of chant that can be put on as soothing background. This music is very present and requires active listening, but the results do transport you to the sound-world of another era.     

Hymns of Kassiani
Kassia (Kassiani) (c.810-c.865)

Hymns for Christmas
1 Lamplighting Psalms, excerpt, Mode 2 «Κύριε ἐκέκραξα» "Lord, I have cried..." Psalm 140 &c. - MS Sinai 1255 [5:32]
2 Stíchera Prosómoia  - Kassía, MS Vienna Theo. gr.181 [10:11]
3 Other Prosómoia  - Kassía, MS Ambr. 139 [6:53]
4 Doxastikón of Great Vespers of Christmas Day «Αὐγούστου μοναρχήσαντος» "When Augustus reigned" - Kassía, MS Grott. E.α.II [4:51]
Hymns from the Triodion and Holy Week
5 Idiómelon from Great Vespers on the Eve of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee «Παντοκράτορ Κύριε, οἶδα, πόσα δύνανται τὰ δάκρυα» "Almighty Lord, I know how powerful tears are" - Kassía, MS Grott. E.α.5 [3:17]
6 Tetraō ́dion for Great and Holy Saturday, Odes 1 and 3  - Kassía, MS Grott. E.γ.ΙΙ [5:38]
7 Idiómelon from Matins for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican «Ταῖς ἐξ ἔργων καυχήσεσι» "... by boasting of his works"  - Kassía, MS Vienna Theo. gr.181 [3:06]
8 Tetraō ́dion for Great and Holy Saturday, Odes 4 and 5 - Kassía, MS Grott. E.γ.ΙΙ [6:04]
9 From Great and Holy Wednesday at Matins «Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα» "Lord, the woman found in many sins" - Kassía, MS Grott. E.α.5 [8:07]
10 Kalophonic Stícheron Στιχηρὸν καλοφωνικόν «Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα» "Lord, the woman found in many sins" MS Sinai 1251 - text: Kassía, music: attr. Meletios the Monk  [25:54]
Cappella Romana
Alexander Lingas (music director and founder)
Recorded 13-17 January 2020, The MAdeleine Parish, Portland, Oregon

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