Hymns of Kassianí

Hymns of Kassianí

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About the Album

Cappella Records is proud to present the release of Hymns of Kassianí performed by Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas, music director.

Discover the world’s earliest music by a female composer: 9th-century nun, poet, and hymnographer Kassianí (Kassía).

The same men and women of Cappella Romana who brought you the Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia bestseller (44 weeks on Billboard), now sing the earliest music we have by a female composer, including long-suppressed hymns recorded here for the first time.

They close with two medieval versions of her beloved hymn for Orthodox Holy Week.

Cappella Romana is the world’s leading ensemble in the field of medieval Byzantine chant. Building on its extensive catalogue of this repertoire, Hymns of Kassianí is its 25th release. Performed by an ensemble of female and male singers, this is the first of a planned series to record all of Kassianí’s surviving works, released on SACD in high resolution and surround-sound.

In this current century, when “firsts” by women are unfortunately still notable, Kassianí was a trailblazer for women nearly a thousand years ago. Hers is the earliest music by a female composer.

Her story is a modern one from the 9th century. Born into a wealthy and influential family, Kassianí was a beautiful, intelligent woman who was nonetheless censored. Some of her hymns and poetry were reattributed to men or were replaced with those by men in liturgical books.

She fearlessly spoke her mind. As a candidate in a brideshow, she rejected the advances of the emperor Theophilos, who was drawn to her beauty. He challenged her by saying “It is from woman that evil comes,” referring to Eve’s transgression. She replied “And also from woman came the very best,” referring to the Virgin Mary. Her terse rebuttal wounded his pride. The emperor rejected her and chose another as his wife.

Kassianí left her noble life to found a monastery and become its first abbess. She went on to write both secular and sacred poetry and hymns of notoriety. In her secular poem, Misó (I hate) she wrote the prescient line “I hate silence when it is time to speak.”

While known primarily known to Greek Orthodox today for her famous hymn in Holy Week, she is also familiar through popular culture, her character appearing in the television series “Viking,” and on an album (No Man’s Land) by English punk singer/ songwriter Frank Turner, who lifted lyrics directly from the same hymn from Holy Week.

Kassianí

Born around 810 into a wealthy and influential family in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Kassianí was beautiful, educated, and wrote both secular poetry and sacred hymns. She remains a popular figure among Greek Orthodox, known primarily today for her colorful backstory and a single famous hymn sung in Holy Week.

Modern research has revealed however that the historical Kassianí contributed far more than a single “hit” to Orthodox services. Scholars now view Kassía, as she probably called herself, as the outstanding figure among the small group of women known to have written texts and music for Byzantine public worship. Her independence of thought, accomplishments as a composer, and devotion to Christian religious life have led to comparisons with the later German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), whose reputation has likewise been recently revived. Unlike Hildegard, Kassía succeeded in having her hymns circulate widely beyond her own immediate orbit, incorporated into official service books. However some of her hymnography was either actively or passively suppressed. Sometimes copied in medieval manuscripts without attribution, or reattributed to male composers, her hymns also appear under such variants of her name as Eikasía, Ikasía, Kasía, and Kassianí.

Kassia was first recorded by Byzantine historians as taking part in an imperial bride show. This was an event at which Byzantine emperors and royalty would choose a wife from among the most eligible women in the empire. The bride show in which Kassia participated was thrown for the young soon-to-be- emperor Theophilos, who was immediately captivated by her. When Theophilos approached Kassía to test her, he stated that “It is from woman that evil comes,” referring to Eve’s transgression. She replied cleverly with a play-on-words in Greek, “And also from woman came the very best,” referring to the Virgin Mary. Theophilos was taken aback by Kassía’s biting rebuke, rejecting her in favor of another, Theodora.

After opting out of her chance to become Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), Kassía founded an abbey in 843 outside of Constantinople and served as its first abbess. Historians have suggested that Kassia’s move into monastic life was a response to her rejection by Theophilos, but modern scholars now believe that it was more likely a reflection of the intense religious fervor of the day. Her move to the cloister combined Kassia’s desire to have access to the books and to the centers of learning that were part and parcel of Byzantine religious life.

Towards the end of her life, Kassia left the Abbey and traveled to Italy for a brief period, before eventually settling on the island of Kasos in Greece. She died there sometime around 865. Following her death, Kassia was canonized by the Orthodox Church as Saint Kassianí, also known as Kassianí the Hymnographer.

Reviews

Featured on The New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise blog!

“Cappella Romana continues to turn out sensational recordings that are state-of-the-art in sound quality. This one has breadth, depth, warmth, and a phenomenal surround quality resonating with a physically palpable and penetrating effect that places you in the middle of an acoustically marvelous church. Alexander Lingas offers excellent, in-depth notes on many aspects of the life of Kassia and her music, and directs the ensemble (men, women, both together) in a performance of clarity and technical wizardry. This is a landmark recording that will still retain its importance for many years to come.” —Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“The chants flow in a measured, metrical style unfamiliar to Western chant but typical of the Byzantine tradition. Other verses, such as the lamp-lighting psalm, take on an urgency in both male and female voices. “The Publican and the Pharisee” involves the women’s voices of Cappella Romana. Here, melodies ebb and flow over a drone, the lines marked by subtle vocal shakes and scoops that give the music its distinctive sound.” —Aaron Keebaugh, Early Music America

“Cappella Romana are specialists in Byzantine chant, and this album is a stunner. The release is an SACD hybrid multichannel recording. If possible, opt for the physical disc rather than the digital download for this one. The release has both 2-channel and 5.0 surround formats, with 192k/24bit resolution. Hearing this recording in surround made me feel like I was standing in the Hagia Sofia when these hymns were new. I am so looking forward to the next installment.” —Ralph Graves, WTJU (full review)

“Especially when the men and women sing together, with the flowing melodies accompanied by a droning single note, it has a singularly powerful effect. If you turn it up and close your eyes you feel like you’re in a vast church or cathedral in the presence of something greater than the sum of the individual human voices surrounding you… sit back and listen, and let Cappella Romana’s superb singers transport you back to the Byzantine Empire.” —Jon Sobel, BlogCritics (full review)

“The music is rather striking with pedal points that provide a base line against the chant lines that stay mostly syllabic with little melismas for extra emphasis.  Listeners more familiar with Gregorian Chant will also notice a decidedly different modal quality with the unique lines turning in unique ways that have closer parallels in Middle Eastern chant styles. … The performances transport the listener back in time to experience this music in stunning sound.  Notes and additional information in the accompanying booklet help further bring Kassiani’s music to life by the premiere ensemble performing these ancient Byzantine music.  More music from the woman canonized as Kassiani the Hymnographer is forthcoming this year. … Highly Recommended!” —Steven A. Kennedy, Cinemusical

“What struck me right away, is the high degree of professionalism of the mixed male-female chorale… For me, it is the spiritual force that emanates from these chants that make them so impressively intense and foreboding.… The full mystic weight invades your spirit like being back in the Eastern Orthodox time. Proof of Cappella Romana’s authenticity? For me, no doubt. We owe it to Alexander Lingas that these and other Byzantine memories from the mist of times are brought to life and recorded for eternity.” —Adrian Quanjer, HRAudio.net

“Cappella Romana… is transforming the dry, brittle pages of ancient Byzantine scores into living musical lyricism with a broad international appeal. … Their latest album provides a stunning entrée to the work of Kassianí… this album provides a new tool not only for self-examination but for indulgence in the rich sensual heritage of Byzantine singing. Kassianí’s songs demand to be heard, and we are enriched by listening to them, especially in this authentic and deeply expressive collection.” —Linda Holt, ConcertoNet

“The SACD hybrid contains high quality two-channel and 5.0 Surround mixes. The sound is excellent. Cappella Romana gives us excellent, state-of-the-art performances of chants from male and mixed choirs, including two versions of her well-loved hymn for Holy Week. They are beautifully realized under the direction of Alexander Lingas. … I strongly recommend this album for anyone seeking to experience an important element of historical lifeways in music. It is ravishing, invariably, and quite refreshing if you are not familiar. Either way this one is a milestone.” —Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical-Modern Music Review

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