Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Byzantine Women Composers
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
I was researching something else, and I came across the most wonderful CD. It was music by Byzantine composer Kassia, from the 9th century. And here I thought Hildegard was the first named composer! Apparently, she was only the first named composer in the West—Byzantium was naming them left and right, and Kassia is not only earlier, but she’s also a woman! First, a little history about how Byzantium (which is a modern appellation, by the way. I’ll use it here as a convenience) came to be separate from the West in religion, culture, and language. The Catholic papacy had a long tradition of eastern orientation, but in the 8th century, the Byzantines split off after the papacy refused to pay taxes to the Byzantine Empire and destroy religious icons, because such destruction seemed too close to the Islamic policy banning religious images. There was more to it than iconoclastic differences and fear of Islam, but the result was a papacy vulnerable to the Lombards of Northern Italy, which ultimately led to an alliance with the Carolingian family in the form of Pepin the Short (c714-768), Charlemagne’s father. There was a lot of arguing about whether the Eucharistic bread actually became God’s body and so forth, but the great split between Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics happened when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne (c742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was the first to be named Holy Roman Emperor since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, when Justinian tried to bring Eastern (Byzantine) power further west and ended up dividing rule of the land into several pieces. Not only the religions but also the cultures diverged wildly after this point. Byzantium used the Cyrillic alphabet, incorporated Indian and Arabian influences into music, architecture, and other art forms, and the language of the literate was Greek. Under Roman rule, Latin was the unifying language of the literate, music and other art forms took on what we now identify as distinctly European affects, and the Roman alphabet was used.Byzantine music tends to be wildly ornamental, with lithe wriggling endings to long notes, quick turns and decorations in instrumental parts, and extremes of high and low voices. Roman music is more straightforward, requiring less virtuosity but with its own kind of serene beauty. Where church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) developed in Roman Catholic lands involving a tuning based on a sequence of three whole tones, a half tone, and another whole tone, Byzantium retained the old Greek modes, which were based on a stricter, more mathematical splitting of string lengths into five pentatonic notes. (For those interested in temperament, this ends up being the difference between Just and Mean tones before they knew it was called that.)Byzantium became the Ottoman Empire after bunches of wars and other disruptions around the 15th century. Even so, a sharp divide between the sound of eastern music and that of western still remains. Now that you have some context, let’s take a listen to some Byzantine music and explore some composers’ biographies.
“Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age, CD 1: Les Premieres hueres de l’Ere Chretienne.” Harmonia Mundi, 1995.Hesperion XXI, Montserrat Figueras, Gürsoy Dinçer, Lior Elmaleh, Jordi Savall, et al. “La Sublime Porte, Voix d’Istanbul 1430-1750.” Alia Vox 2011.Peter Rabenser, Belinda Sykes, Jeremy Avis, Oni Wytars Ensemble. “From Byzantium to Andalusa, Medieval Music and Poetry.” Naxos 2006.Soeur Marie Keyrouse, SBC. “Chants Sacres Melchites, Hymnes a la Vierge.” Harmonia Mundi France, 1994.Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. “Chant Mozarabe, Cathedrale de Tolede (15th Century).” Harmonia Mundi France 1995.Sister Marie Keyrouz, SBC. “Byzantine Chant,” Harmonia Mundi France, 2008.
“The Early Middle Ages, Part 2 of 2,” by Professor Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary. The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses,” Chantily, 2004. “Charlemagne, A Biography,” by Derek Wilson. Vintage Books, New York, 2005.“Charlemagne,” by Roger Collins. Unversity of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008.
Kassia (c805-before 865):
Kassia (also Kassiani, Ikasia, Cassie, and Cassianne), was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. Her name is the feminine Greek form of the Latin name Cassius. She was one of the first Medieval composers whose scores have survived. About 50 of her hymns survive, and 23 are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books that are still used today. The exact number of her compositions is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in various manuscripts or are identified as anonymous. About 790 of her attributed non-liturgical verses survive. She was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family and was said to be very beautiful and intelligent. Three reliable chroniclers claim that she participated in a Bride Show where the prospective groom gave a golden apple to the woman of his choice. In this case, the prospective groom was the soon-to-be-emperor Theophilos (813-842). He chose Kassia, and when he quoted a Bible verse meant as a compliment (something about all sin coming from intelligent and beautiful women, a reference to Eve), she responded to it in kind (something about good things coming from women, a reference to the Virgin Mary). He felt rebuffed and chose someone else, but remained Kassia’s supporter until his death. In 843, Kassia founded a convent in Constantinople near the Constantinian Walls. She was the abbey’s first abbess. The monastery had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which would play a key role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, and which is why her work survived. Emperor Theophilos was bothered by the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons. Despite being scourged with a lash as punishment, Kassia remained an outspoken icon defender. When Theophilos died, the age of iconoclastic destruction also ended. Kassia is notable for being one of very few women to write in her own name during the Middle Ages. Her most famous composition is the “Hymn of Kassiani,” which is still sung every Holy Wednesday. It has a large vocal range and is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of solo Byzantine chant. It’s a unison piece, sometimes with a vocal bass drone. Church attendees make an issue of going to church specifically to “listen to Kassiani.” Other important works include the “Doxastichon” (for Vespers on Christmas Eve), numerous hymns honoring saints, the “Triodon” (sung during Lent) and the “Irmoi” (for Matins for Great Thursday), and her longest piece, “Canon for the Departed” (for requiem services).Kassia briefly traveled to Italy but settled in the Greek Island of Kasos, which is where she died sometime between 867 and 890. Kassia’s tomb and reliquary are in a church In Panaghia. Her feast day is September 7th, and she’s often pictured on the icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent).
VocaMe: “Kassia—Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer,” 2009. Only works by Kassia, including Augustus. (This is the one I’m completely hooked on.) Kronos Quartet: “Early Music,” 1997. Includes an instrumental version of “Using the Apostate Tyrant as His Tool.”Sarband: “Sacred Women, Women as Composers and Performers of Medieval Chant,” 2001. Includes “Augustus.”Deborah Kayser and Nick Tsiavos: “The Fallen Woman,” 2008. Includes the Kassiani Hymn. Search for this one on YouTubeCapella Romana and the English Chamber Choir: “Choral Settings of Kassiani and When Augustus Reigned,” 2011.
“The Byzantine World,” edited by Paul Stephenson, 2013. “Byzantine Women, Varieties of Experience, 800-1200” edited by Lynda Garland. Ashgate, 2006.
Khosrovidukht (8th century)
Also Xosrociduxt.One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was once thought to have been a member of the Armenian royal family, but experts are now uncertain. There are stories that her brother was abducted by Arabs and that she was taken to the fortress of Ani Kaakh (now called Kemah) for safekeeping. She stayed there as a hermit for 20 years. She’s thought to be the composer of a sarakan, or canonical hymn, called “Zarmanaii e Ints” (How Wondrous it is”), which honors the memory of her brother, thought to have been assassinated in 737 for his conversion to Christianity. It’s a secular piece, but it was sanctioned for use in the Armenian Church.
“Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.
Sahakdukht (8th century)
Sahakdukht came from a musical Armenian family, and had a famous brother, music theorist Stephannos Syunetsi (dates unavailable—like hers). She herself was a composer of hymns, and she was a poet and pedagogue. She lived in a cave near present-day Yerevan, and wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants. Only one survived, “Srbuhi Mariam” (St. Mary), a nine-stanza verse. Many of her works are Marian Hymns, and some may have helped to shape the genre. (In the Latin liturgy, the Marian hymns are my favorites. They’re often gentle and sweetly loving, and use metaphors that I find particularly pleasing.)Sahakdukht is said to have taught lay musicians and clerical students who visited her cave. According to custom, she stayed seated behind a curtain during all interviews and visits. It must have been a very long and slow 20 years…