Kassia – A Medieval Hymn Writer

Kassia (Greek: , Kassiane or , Kassiani; 805/810 – before 865) is a medieval abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer. She was one of the first women in the Byzantine world to write music that has survived and is able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. Approximately fifty of her hymns are extant, most of them stichera, and twenty-three are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books.

According to legend, Kassia was an exceptionally beautiful woman from a wealthy family who lived in ninth-century Constantinople. Her stepmother, Empress Euphrosyne, organized a bride-show to select a wife for the young Emperor Theophilos. Kassia was among the contenders and, at her screening, Theophilos approached her with what is probably the worst pick-up line in history: “Through a woman [came forth] the baser things.”

A fine copy of a manuscript of kassia’s hymn for Holy Wednesday survives in the British Library. The hymn compares the rule of Emperor Augustus to the reign of Christ, and uses parallelism in both the metrical rhyming of the text and in the melody. The meter and rhymes evoke powerful reflections on the themes of sin and redemption, especially the image of Christ bending down to listen to Kassia’s sighs, and bringing the waters of the sea up to the clouds.

Logan Contreras is a mezzo-soprano and educator who founded the Kassia Database to aid in the discovery and celebration of art song by medieval women composers. The database is designed to help singers find songs suitable for their voices and skills, with the goal of increasing performance and advocation for these often overlooked compositions.

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