Written by: Braeden Weyhrich
Kassia is the oldest-known female composer whose works survive today. She was born into a wealthy Byzantine family in approximately 810 C.E. Because of her status, she was able to receive a formal education in reading, writing, philosophy, Greek literature, and Christian theology. As the daughter of nobility and someone who spent a lot of time near the royal court, Kassia was chosen as one of two possible suitors for the emperor Theophilus, who would select his wife by presenting her with a golden apple. According to legend, Theophilus greatly admired Kassia’s beauty, and “stated, ‘From woman came the worst in the world’ (meaning Eve and her original sin). [Kassia] calmly replied, ‘From woman also came the best (referring to the Virgin Mary who bore the Son of God).” Theophilus was offended by Kassia’s response and presented Theodora, the other suitor, with the golden apple.
Because she did not enter into royalty, Kassia had the opportunity to pursue her goal of working for the church. In 843, she founded a convent in Constantinople and became its first abbess. Drawing on her previous education, Kassia wrote poetry and hymns for use in religious services as well as secular epigrams and clever sayings. Over 50 pieces of liturgical music and 261 verses of poetry have been attributed to Kassia. She often wrote her music in the second or fourth mode, utilized text painting, and crafted melodies that are “concise” and “syllabic.”
Though not taken seriously as a hymnographer at first, because of her gender, the men of the church eventually took note of Kassia’s music and “acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to compose hymns lofty enough to suit the occasion” (St. Kassiane). One such occasion was Holy Week, during which her eponymous piece “Hymn of Kassiane” is still performed by Orthodox Christians during Holy Tuesday Vespers. As recognition for her contributions to sacred music, Kassia was canonized by the Orthodox Church, which celebrates her feast day annually on September 7.
- Akkent, Meral. “Kassia.” Istanbul Kadin Müzesi. 2012. http://www.istanbulkadinmuzesi.org/en/kassia.
- Protheroe, Guy. “Kassia.” Naxos Records. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.naxos.com/person/_Kassia/106294.htm.
- “St. Kassiane.” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese of North America. Accessed June 17, 2021. http://ww1.antiochian.org/node/16764.
- Touliatos, Diane. “Kassia [Cassia, Kasia, Eikasia, Ikasia, Kasianē, Kassianē, Kassiani].” Grove Music Online. May 25, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.40895.