Monday, January 23, 2017

And through a woman came forth the better things


In his plea for more imaginative concert planning conductor Warren Cohen lamented the ubiquity of the Emperor Concerto. So staying with the theme of unfamiliar music, today's post features music with connections to another Emperor. Chroniclers from the 9th century recount that when the young and beautiful Kassia (also known as Kassiani) was told by her suitor the Emperor Theophilos that "Through a woman came forth the baser things" she retorted "And through a woman came forth the better things". After rejecting the Emperor's ill-judged advances the proto-feminist Kassia went on to become an influential abbess, poet and composer. So, given the high profile of Hildegard of Bingen's music, it is surprising that Kassia is not better known today; particularly as she predates Hildegard by almost three centuries and is usually awarded the highly marketable title of the first woman composer.

This puzzling neglect may be explained by two factors. One is that Kassia (c810-865AD) was born in Constantinople and spent most of her life in the city, which at the time was the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (now Istanbul) stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, so in our euro-centric culture Kassia is perceived as being on the margins of the Western classical music tradition. This marginalisation is compounded by her membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church in which she is venerated as Saint Kassiani, so she lies outside the great Catholic tradition of sacred music. The second possible reason for her obscurity is her small oeuvre: although more than 50 liturgical works are attributed to her, the provenance of more than half of these is disputed.

Kassia's neglect is reflected in the record catalogue, and to my knowledge the only full length album devoted to her music was recorded in 2009 by the VocaMe early music ensemble*. Fortunately VocaMe's album Kassia - seen above - on the German Christophorus label* provides a very cogent argument for giving the Byzantine hymnographer the attention she deserves. Sequentia, with its mix of voices led by Barbara Thornton and the subtle sound of early instruments, played an important role in the Hildegard revival, and similarly the four female voices of VocaMe are complemented by early music multi-instrumentalist Michael Popp and - looking eastwards from Constantinople - Johann Bengen on santur. VocaMe's persuasive advocacy confirms Kassia's assertion that through a woman came forth the better things. If you don't know her music this album is well worth seeking out.

* A Naxos CD juxtaposes Kassiani's original Troparion for Holy Wednesday with settings by Mikis Theodorakis, Ivan Moody and others.
** The recording of Coptic liturgy featured in a 2013 post was also on the Christophorus label.
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