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Episode 7: Hymns by Kassianí by Cappella Romana with Dr. Thomas Arentzen and Prof. Alexander Lingas

For our April podcast, we were joined by Dr. Thomas Arentzen (Uppsala University) and Professor Alexander Lingas (City University of London), for a discussion of Hymns by Kassianí by Cappella Romana.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Welcome to the seventh episode of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Podcast Series.

I am Anna Stavrakopoulou, the Program Director in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. We are joined today by Thomas Arentzen.

Thomas Arentzen: Hi, I’m Thomas Arentzen.

Anna: Alexander Lingas.

Alexander Lingas: Hello, I’m Alexander Lingas.

Anna: Thomas Arentzen is Reader in Church History and works as Researcher in Greek Philology at Uppsala University where he conducts the research project “Beyond the Garden: An Ecocritical Approach to Early Byzantine Christianity.” He is the author of the monograph The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist, plus more than 20 articles and essays on Christian hymnography. He has edited several scholarly volumes and is article editor of Patristica Nordica Annuaria.

Alexander Lingas is a professor of music at the City University of London, founder and musical director of the vocal ensemble Capella Romana, and a fellow of the University of Oxford’s European Humanities Research Center. His present work embraces historical study, ethnography, and performance. In 2018, His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome, an Ecumenical Patriarch, bestowed on him the title of Archon Mousikodidaskalos.

Today, they will be discussing the work of Kassianí, a ninth-century Byzantine poet, whose hymns feature in a recent recording by Capella Romana. Kassianí, or Kassía, who lived from 810 to 865 AD, was the Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. She's one of the earliest medieval creators whose compositions are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians.

As we listen to three hymns from the new recording, Hymns by Kassianí by Cappella Romana, they’ll answer questions like, who was Kassía and how did she lead her life? How common were female hymnographers in Byzantium and how has Capella Romana reconstructed some rarely sang hymns of Kassía?

We are delighted to have with us today two scholars who work on hymns to discuss a newly released CD with hymns by Kassianí. I will start with Thomas Arentzen. Let’s start with a basic question, Thomas. Kassía or Kassianí?

Thomas: Well, first of all, I just want to say thank you, Anna, for organizing this and for inviting us to do this podcast episode. It’s very interesting and fascinating that you’re doing this. I’m also very grateful to Alexander for actually making this recording which will, I think, surely make Kassía into someone much more known both in the scholarly world and in the more general realm. It is a great recording. It has some of the texts by Kassía both in English and in Greek. It has a very fine introduction about the life and works of Kassía. It’s going to make her much more “out there,” and that I’m very thankful for.

When it comes to the name of the Kassía or Kassianí, these days one very often hears the version “Kassianí,” which is the modern Greek version, but in the hymns themselves, Kassía has, in the acrostics where you write down (in the stanzas) your name often—Byzantine poets did this—she signs with “Kassía.” So it’s clear that “Kassía” was the version she used. The early manuscripts all have “Kassía” or “Ikas(s)ia”/“Eika(s)sia,” where there was probably some confusion with the Greek [feminine] article [i.e., ἡ], if it’s “Ikasia”/“Eikasia” or “Kas(s)ía” [i.e., ἡ Ka(s)sía has been turned into the confused form “Ikasia”/“Eikasia”].

The 14th century is the first time that we see the form “Kassianí.” I think it’s probably a modern Greek version of the name, but of course, it’s like this with names: you could be Tom or you could be Thomas or Alex or Alexander. Maybe she was Kassianí among her closest friends? I don’t know.

Anna: Thank you very much. What do we know about Kassía’s life?

Thomas: We know quite a bit. For being a woman hymnographer, we know quite a bit. She was born early in the ninth century, so around 810 in Constantinople, probably to a noble family. One of the most important sources for Kassía’s life is a letter correspondence between her and the famous monastic writer, Saint Theodore the Stoudite. We don’t have her letters, but we have three of his letters that are addressed to her.

Those letters suggest that—she must have been a teen then, because it was early in her life—but they suggest that she was someone who was taking active part in the resistance to iconoclasm, the policy of getting rid of the holy images. She was even helping out; those who were persecuted because they were iconophiles, she helped. It's also suggested in one of the letters that she was actually also punished somehow or beaten for this.

She seemed to be, at a very early age, active, with strong principles. She must have had an education more privately, but she must have been educated, as we can tell from her writing. In the letters from Saint Theodore, it seems that she wants to become a monastic; he’s insinuating that. Then, later in life, she actually becomes a nun and an abbess in a newly established monastery close to the Stoudios monastery, which is where Theodore was situated.

The Stoudios monastery was a very important center for hymnography and also for organizing hymns and for distributing hymns or creating a richer hymnographic corpus. Being aligned with Theodore and eventually other monks in the Stoudios monastery was surely an important part of her development when she eventually became a poet and a hymnographer.

We know that she wrote hymns that are still in use in the Byzantine Rite—both by the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church (those that use the Byzantine Rite in the Catholic Church)—and she also wrote what one might call more secular poetry. Maybe we can come back to her work later but that’s, I think, the basics.

Anna: We will come back to her work for sure but now I am curious since our podcast has at its core, the new CD. I would like to ask Alexander, what is Capella Romana, and how did it become involved with the hymns of Kassianí or Kassía?

Alexander: Well, to echo what Thomas said, it’s really fantastic to be here with you and to be able to share back some of the work on Kassía and Byzantine hymnography, things that I’ve been looked up in the past in Dumbarton Oaks’ wonderful library. Capella Romana is a vocal ensemble that was founded in 1991. Originally started off as a group of friends who wanted to do a benefit concert. Then it went well, and we decided to keep going. One of the things that we specialize in is working on the traditions of Eastern Christianity and especially repertoire that is somehow related to my research as a Byzantinist.

One of the things that we’ve been called to look upon at various times, in addition to things like the tradition of Hagia Sophia, where we had our recent Lost Voices release but also as the music of Kassía. We’ve been doing some of her music in various forms, either in settings by modern composers—there are modern composers who have set her hymns and we've done those from very early on in our existence—but also the chant of hers as it exists, the melodies in medieval manuscripts.

In 2004, we were invited to give a couple of concerts at a festival in London, the Byzantine Festival, that was dedicated to women in Byzantium that year. We had the premier of a new setting of a hymn by Kassianí by the composer Christos Hatzis of Toronto with Patricia Rozario as the soprano soloist but also that was with the English Chamber Choir. Also, we were there to give the original version. We performed some medieval versions of Kassía’s hymns as they exist in manuscripts transcribed by our own team of researchers, especially Dr. Ioannis Arvanitis of Athens, and performed it in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. We’ve been chipping away at her work ever since and we decided recently that she really, really deserves to be better known.

She has a corpus of around, depending how you count them, around 60 hymns or so. It’s a real substantial body of work. Only about half of them came into the modern service books. It really is work that should be better known, especially given how well, say, Hildegard of Bingen is known now and who herself, her music was only revived a couple of decades ago.

Anna: Thank you very much. I think you touched upon a little bit on my question. The question is how well known Kassía is in the Orthodox Church and in modern Greek culture as well. How well known is she?

Alexander: She’s very well known in modern Greek culture for two reasons: one, the legend of her life, slightly fantastic versions of her life story as it’s been transmitted to us from Byzantine times. It then has become almost a bit of a folktale as it has been spun out. Even modern novels have been written with her as a protagonist. The other thing is there is a hymn that she wrote that got into the modern service books for Holy Wednesday, which is about the sinful woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke.

It is in the received tradition of Byzantine chanting, that is, the type of chanting that is more or less the same melodies that are practiced all the way from Moldavia down to the Middle East, the major centers of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, and Mount Athos. That setting of that Holy Wednesday hymn is one of the big vocal showpieces of Holy Week. People will go in Greece—and people who might not even go to church much—they will go on Tuesday evening to hear this service and say, “How was the Kassianí?” or even, if they’re really in the know, “Whose Kassianí?” because there are multiple settings by different chant composers as it has been reset in the centuries.

That’s how she’s known more broadly. In the wider Orthodox Church, she is known among those people who bother to know such things as the writer of hymns, a number of hymns that are scattered throughout the service books, especially one for Christmas, “When Augustus Reigned,” which happens at a very climactic point on Christmas Eve. That one is well known, but actually, her other ones, even the ones that have made it into the modern service books, many of them are there anonymously depending on the edition. She’s either a one-hit wonder, or at best if you include “When Augustus Reigned,” a two-hit wonder.

Anna: Thank you. Thank you very much. I was wondering about your take, Thomas, on her poetry. What would you say about her poetry from your perspective as a scholar of hymns?

Thomas: I think that the first thing one can say is that in addition to her hymns, she also wrote secular poetry that I mentioned before, which makes her a complex writer. She writes perhaps for different audiences for different contexts. This more secular poetry, if you will, is often called Gnomic Verses, and there are 261 verses that we have still today in the edition said to be by Kassía.

They are in a style that is very direct and the kind of thing that you would have on your wall—maybe, “It’s better to have good friends than to have enemies,” the kind of wisdom of everyday life in a way. She’s in a long tradition here: Menander has this kind of poetry, epigrams, the Greek Anthology . . . you can hear echoes of these things in her poems.

Anna: Thank you, Thomas. Can I ask you, could you give us an example of some of her gnomic poetry?

Thomas: Yes. She has one on being a man and one on being a woman. So two different ones, that I really like. I'll start with the one on man. So: things to say about being a male, I guess. She says,

A man bald, dumb, and with only one hand,
short, swarthy, and with a speech impediment,
bowed legged and with crossed eyes,
when this man was insulted by a certain adulterer and fornicator,
drunk, thief, liar, and murderer
because of his infirmities, said,
“I am not the cause of my misfortunes,
for in no way that I want to be like this,
but you are in part the cause of your faults,
as you did not receive from the creator,
these things that you do, endure and dignify.” [Eng. trans. Antonia Tripolitis]

She’s very concerned about being straightforward, honest, not trying to bribe people. There’s a lot of this, “just be straightforward!” And also beauty is something she’s thinking about a lot. And in the one on woman she says—and this is also just an excerpt—but she says,

It is moderately bad for a woman to have a radiant countenance,
yet beauty has its consolation,
but if a woman is ugly,
what misfortune, what bad luck! [Eng. trans. Antonia Tripolitis]

She’s harsh, but that’s her secular or nonliturgical poetry.

Alexander: That’s harsh! You should try the poem on stupidity. She really did not suffer fools gladly.

Thomas: Exactly. She’s very, very hard against fools and people who are not nice and kind and wise. There’s a mixture of Christian ethics and civic noble ethic, but then there’s all her liturgical poetry, which is what she is more known for. I find her liturgical poetry to be economic and sort of dense and elegant. There’s a lot of liturgical poetry that is almost Baroque in its metaphors and its rhyming effects and stuff like that.

A lot of what we have from Kassía is short pieces. I don’t think that’s a coincidence necessarily. She has two kanons, but they’re not super long. She has no kontakia, which is another long genre, but we have a lot of shorter pieces. She’s able to say something important in relatively brief statements without going on and on. Her poetry has this very direct sense to it. There’s no mysticism like in the later Symeon the New Theologian. There are not these long narratives that we have in some earlier poetry, but there are scenes that are very direct and intense.

Anna: Thank you so much. Thank you, Thomas. So now to go back to Alexander. I was wondering, how do we know of her work today and why are they known, her hymns, her poems, and how do we know about them?

Alexander: Well, we know them from two angles. One of them is from current use. There are melodies for her hymns in all of the modern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions that use the service books that include them. We can also approach it from the other end, from that of manuscripts and from scholarship and looking to see how they were recorded in the middle ages.

When we look and see that, we see twice as many hymns than actually made it into the modern service books. We see that the melodies that are recorded there in notation—a kind of musical notation that is in use in Byzantium, in the Eastern Roman Empire and adjoining lands—that we can read pretty well in terms of its sequence of pitches from toward the end of the 12th century. There are earlier forms of notation too that get close to that. We can pretty well tell it was the same melody that was then copied into this form that came in the late 12th, which we call Middle Byzantine Notation. That Middle Byzantine Notation is used all the way to the beginning of the 19th century.

We have also, we can chart a continuous tradition of transmission of the melodies of our hymns. In some cases, those melodies seem to have been changed in various ways, naturally as art might evolve through the years and as it responds to different circumstances. Again, there are these two ways in. Either you can hear what we might call the received melody, the melody that people can learn even by oral tradition today, or one can go back and look at these early manuscripts as well.

Anna: Yes, I see. Thank you very much. Thank you. I would like to ask Thomas, were there any more female hymnographers in Byzantium or was she just a unique case?

Thomas: Well, I would say both. She is definitely a unique case. She’s the only one who has really made her way into the liturgical world of the Byzantine Rite. There are some other female hymnographers in Byzantine tradition, a couple who are only known by name. Then there were two other female hymnographers [i.e., Thekla and Theodosia] in the same century as Kassía lived. In this last part of iconoclasm, there seems to have been some kind of opening for noblewomen to be able to contribute poetically more than before.

It’s possible that it has something to do with iconoclasm, where we know that the empresses were important in fighting for the icons and there seems to have been some kind of opening for women who were intellectual. There was also a resurgence in the monasteries in Constantinople at the end of or after iconoclasm. Kassía and these other women hymnographers were also monastic people. That may also explain this a little bit.

I think there’s an interesting question as to who they wrote for and what kind of poetry this is because Thekla, who was one of the other women hymnographers, has written a kanon that is both clearly addressed to women to be sung by women and is on the Virgin Mary or Theotokos. It has a very feminine style, you could say. It uses feminine adjectives and verbs for the singer.

This is probably be explained by the fact that they were supposed to be sung for a monastery of nuns, but Kassía does not do this. Kassía, as far as I can see, avoids using female verbal forms and adjectives for the “we” of the hymn, so that it’s much more open to be used by other communities. It seems that she’s more ambitious, maybe. From the very outset, she really wants to make music for a larger audience.

Anna: Thank you. Yes. Alexander, what’s your take on what Thomas just shared with us?

Alexander: Well, I think one important distinction to make is between that of hymnographer and composer or melodos. Where Kassía is unique among the women who have written hymns is that she also, in some cases, wrote her own melodies. That's the definition of a melodos, you are a singer-songwriter as it were. You write both the tunes and the words. Whereas Theodosia and Thekla have left us hymns based on other melodies, that were preexisting. This is true of also some male hymnographers like Joseph the Hymnographer. He’s called “the Hymnographer” because he didn’t, as far as we know, write any original tunes of his own, he just recycled others that were already in circulation. It’s a very useful thing to do because that’s how cantors can memorize a relatively small body of model melodies and sing many thousands of hymns.

But Kassía, she wrote, and those are the things that actually stayed in the modern service books. It’s the hymns that she wrote with their own melodies, idiomela, they’re called in Greek, that then were widely dispersed and stayed in the books. Whereas the hymns that she wrote to preexisting melodies, some of them made it quite far within a few decades of her lifetime, even as far as Jerusalem, we know from manuscripts, but those are not the ones that made it into the modern service books.

Anna: Yes, I see. I see. In contemporary terms, we would say that she was the composer and the lyric writer in some of these cases. Yes, I see. Alexander, what types of hymns did she write? You spoke about the idiomela. Apart from this distinction, do we have other distinctions as well? How do you perform the hymns that you wrote today?

Alexander: I’ll take the last question first then. How do we perform them today? What we do is that we make editions based on the medieval manuscripts, which means having to make some decisions about rhythm and sharps and flats, because the old notation, the notation that was in use up until the beginning of the 19th century, had no way of showing the difference between, in English, what we would in American English call, quarter notes and eighth notes, or crotchets and quavers as they’d say here in the UK. There is no way to show the subdivision of the beat between pam-pam pam and papam-papam-papam or papapa-papapa-papapa. You had to decide how that worked from other contexts and the same thing with sharps and flats.

Basically, that’s where the scholarly part comes in, editing these manuscripts to then figure out as well as we can, based on the evidence that we have, how those might have been interpreted in the Middle Ages. We don’t have any recordings. For other things, we can also look to the living traditions for ideas about what type of vocal style to use and so on. About her hymns, she left us essentially three types. I should say, all of her or hymns are for the right of Jerusalem, which had made its way to Constantinople and had started to become a kind of standard way of doing the morning and evening cycle of prayer.

There was another one that Hagia Sophia used, very archaic, full of psalms, very few hymns at all. Actually, Kassía was part of this movement to write lots and lots of hymns for the Jerusalem office. She wrote three types, so the first of that is the kanon and that’s for the morning prayer service, the Orthros. She’s left us two, one of which we recorded here, which is a kanon of four odes for Holy Saturday. There’s some dispute about who wrote what, when, and it’s a set where the model stanzas are still in the service books today but the rest of it has been replaced by other people.

We hear from some Byzantine writers, even that it could have been perhaps deliberately suppressed because she was a woman and there were some people who thought it wasn’t actually fitting to have, on the eve of Easter, to have the hymns of a woman being sung. Be that as it may, it exists, her version, and fairly widely distributed in medieval manuscripts. We can maybe even listen to the beginning of this. This is the first ode of her kanon for Holy Saturday.

Actually, Thomas, it actually does mention us singing like the women because it’s meant to be attached to the Song of Moses in the Red Sea. She just sneaks it in ever so slightly, the notion that it might be her community, but of course it was taken off elsewhere. Let's hear now the medieval version of this hymn for Holy Saturday, the very first section, Ode One, “He Who Once Hid the Pursuing Tyrant / Κύματι θαλάσσης.”

[Music from the Holy Saturday Tetraodion, Ode 1. Eng. trans. Antonia Tripolitis (sticheron)]

Τετραώδιον τῷ Ἁγίῳ καὶ Μεγάλῳ Σαββάτῳ
ᾨδὴ α' – Ἦχος πλ. β'
Ὁ Εἱρμὸς

«Κύματι θαλάσσης
     τόν κρύψαντα πάλαι
διώκτην τύραννον
     ὑπὸ γῆν ἔκρυψαν
τῶν σεσωσμένων oἱ παῖδες
     ἀλλ' ήμείς ὡς αἱ νεάνιδες
τῷ Kυρίῳ ᾄσωμεν
     ἐνδόξως γάρ δεδόξασται».

Ἄφρον γηραλέε
     ἀκόρεστε ἄδη
χανὼν ὑπὴδεξαι
     τὴν τῶν ἀπάντων ζωήν·
καταπιὼν γὰρ έμέσεις
     ἅς προπέπωκας δικαίων ψυχὰς
καθελεῖ σε Κύριος
     ὅτι δεδόξασται.

Ἰησοῦ Θεέ μου
     ὑμνῶ σου τὰ πάθη·
ἑκὼν γὰρ τέθνηκας
     ὑπὲρ τῆς πάντων ζωῆς
καὶ ἐν σινδόνι και σμύρνῃ
     κηδευθῆναι κατηξίωσας
τὴν ταφὴν δοξάζω σου
            ὑμνῶ σου καὶ τὴν ἔγερσιν.

Tetraodion of Holy and Great Saturday
Ode 1 – Mode Plagal 2
The Model Stanza

He who once
        Hid the pursuing tyrant
In the waves of the sea,
        Was hidden beneath the earth
By the children of those he had saved.
        But let us, as the maidens,
Sing unto the Lord,
        For he is greatly glorified.

Senseless, old,
       Insatiable, gaping
Hell, receive
       The life of all mankind.
For you will be sick devouring
       The souls of the righteous that you
       had swallowed down;
The Lord will strike you down
       Because He is glorified.

Christ, my God,
I sing in praise of your Passion,
For you willingly died
On behalf of everyone’s life
And condescended to be buried
In a sheet and with myrrh;
I glorify your burial
And I offer praise to your raising.

Anna: Thank you. Thank you so much. I am very curious, Alexander, I have heard the sound of Capella Romana and it is different from what is being sung in the eastern Mediterranean today. Why is it different? Can you tell us more about that?

Alexander: Sure. I think that one of the main things is that the melodies have just changed over the centuries. Whereas in this last track, you just heard [singing] and now it’s [singing]. It’s essentially the same scale, ta-ra-ra-ra-ra, but the melody has changed a bit over time. Sometimes people from Greece might say, “Oh, this sounds a little Gregorian,” or something, in some cases, but there are other cases actually.

It would just actually depend on the hymn, because there are some hymns that have changed almost not at all over the many centuries, but I think that's probably the thing that would hit you the most. That “This isn’t the melody I hear in church. What’s going on?”

Anna: I see. Thomas, how do the sounds of Cappella Romana, how does the interpretation of the hymns sound to you, a scholar of hymns? Do they have an illuminating effect? Do they have a pleasure effect? It’s completely up to you the way you want to answer.

Thomas: Well, I’m not a musicologist, but the immediate feeling is that it’s just very beautiful. It’s something you could just sit there and listen to for a long time. Now, I’ve only heard parts of the new recording. I haven’t heard all of them yet, but I wanted to ask Alexander, if I may, do we know anything about whether she wrote for male or female voices? I don’t know exactly what kind of voices one would have written for and what the context of performance in her day was? How much do we know about that?

Alexander: I think when you think you can say is that she wrote for relatively sophisticated, trained voices at times. Some of her hymns have fairly a wide vocal range and require some finesse to pull off. Beyond that though, the nice thing about chant is, and this applies to Western, Latin plainchant as well, that if you don’t have multiple parts and you don’t have instrumental accompaniment, you can pitch it wherever you want.

This is something that, this music, once you write the tune, it can be sung by anybody who has the technical skill to be able to pull off that level of sophistication in the melody. In Byzantium, we know that class of people included everything from professional soloists at a place like Hagia Sophia, some of whom were eunuchs as well. We had male sopranos, plus tenors and basses, the usual run of male voices. We had children from the imperial orphanage.

We had choirs of monks and nuns, and there’s a marvelous description in the Timarion of the Vigil for Saint Demetrios in Thessaloniki. It talks about how you had choirs of monks and nuns and the cathedral foundation of choristers. Everybody is all singing. It’s something very similar in some ways to what Egeria described many centuries before in Jerusalem and in late antiquity. It was a very varied soundscape. Basically, if you were capable of singing it, you did, and you sang it in your own register.

Thomas: The fact that we have this in the hymn book for the Anastasis already in the ninth century means that they were probably used both in monastic settings and in more public Hagiopolites churches right from the very beginning.

Alexander: Absolutely. One of the things that Kassía being an aristocrat and being in those circles, our friend and mutual colleague, Stig Frøyshov has pointed out that one of the centers for the production, the music for the Rite of Jerusalem in Constantinople was the imperial chapel. It probably would’ve made it everywhere. As you say, it made it as far as Jerusalem within a few decades.

One of the other types of hymns that Kassía wrote is called the sticheron. That’s from the word stichos, which means verse. These are hymns to be inserted between the verses of psalms. The core of the Jerusalem office was made of psalms that you would hear every night and every morning, and that to make those songs relevant to the day, the thing that you’re celebrating that day, they would put hymns in that would talk about what you’re celebrating that day. One of the things that Kassía did was she wrote a bunch of hymns for Christmas and they are of two types.

One, idiomela, this with their own melody, where she composed the melody. That’s the one that stayed in the book as “When Augustus Reigned.” Also, she wrote a series of hymns to a preexisting melody. Why don’t we listen to one of those right now, this didn’t make it into the modern service books, but it’s one of a set of four hymns for Christmas Eve. This one begins, “When you appeared Christ, made flesh from a woman / Ὡς ὡράθης, Χριστέ, ἐκ γυναικός.”

[Sticheron Prosomoia for Christmas, First Set. Eng. trans. Ephrem Lash (verse) and Antonia Tripolitis (sticheron)]

Στίχ. Ἐὰν ἀνομίας παρατηρήσῃς, Κύριε, Κύριε τίς ὑποστήσεται; ὅτι παρὰ σοὶ ὁ ἱλασμός ἐστιν

Ὡς ὡράθης, Χριστέ,
ἐκ γυναικὸς σεσαρκωμένος
κατεπλήττετο τὴν σὴν
συγκατάβασιν ἡ σε τεκοῦσα
καὶ δακρύουσα, σῶτερ, ἔλεγε·
Πῶς σε βρέφος φέρω τὸν ἄχρονον
γάλακτι δέ σε; Πῶς τρέφω τόν τρέφοvτα
πᾶσαν κτίσιν θεϊκῇ σου τῇ δυναστείᾳ;
Ὁ διὰ σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμῶν
σάρκα πεpιβαλλόμενος
καὶ τὸ πρόσλημμα θεώσας
τῶν βροτῶv, Κύριε, δόξα σοι.

Verse: If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who will stand? But there is forgiveness with you.

When you appeared, Christ,
made flesh from a woman,
she who bore you,
astounded by your condescension,
tearfully said, Savior;
“How can I bear you as infant who are eternal?
How can I nourish with milk you who nourish
the whole of creation with your divine power?”
Lord, who through the deepest compassion put on flesh
and deified the garment
of mortals, glory to you.

Anna: This is great. I was wondering now, Alexander, if you would like to ask anything. Thomas, if you both have any concluding remarks to this conversation, very, very interesting and illuminating about Kassianí and the long tradition of the reception of her hymns.

Alexander: Thomas, one of your articles that I enjoyed very much recently is talking about the tradition in Constantinople of Holy Wednesday, when the sinful woman identified as a prostitute in hymnography is commemorated. You have Kassía as the last in that sequence. I’m wondering if you might set the stage for it before we actually get to Kassía’s hymn on that subject.

Thomas: That’s a fun question because, of course, the reading for Holy Wednesday was the story about the sinful woman who anointed Christ. It became a very popular theme among both Syriac- and Greek-speaking hymnographers and poets. We have several songs about the sinful woman who is anointing Christ before his crucifixion. In a lot of those—most of them are written by men, and they are often very erotic in their language. There’s this attraction where the sinful woman, who is something of a reformed sex addict, you could say. She is deeply attracted to Christ because he is handsome. It’s not just on a spiritual level, but he is good-looking. It becomes a story of an erotic encounter.

Kassía, on the other hand, is not so interested in the sexual psychology of this woman. She does not call her “the sinful woman.” She doesn’t call her “the harlot” and she does not call her “Mary Magdalene.” Many [later interpreters] have called her that, but that’s not who she is in Kassía’s story.

She is simply someone who feels her own sinfulness, her own struggle with her own desires, and her dark interior. There’s a deep, emotional devotion, but it’s not framed in the same erotic or sexual language. It’s interesting that this hymn by Kassía has been turned into a Mary Magdalene story where people have read Kassía herself as this Mary Magdalene figure, who was a harlot before and now puts her old sinful life behind her. The “I” or the first person singular of the hymn has become Kassía.

What happened with the Mary Magdalene of the gospels—being a female person with authority, who in the sixth century, became all of a sudden interpreted as a reformed harlot—the same thing happens to Kassía, who’s a woman with authority. She’s also turned into this reformed sex addict, just like Mary of Egypt, so this becomes a type for strong women in a way.

It’s interesting also when Kassía—in her short troparion on Pelagia (who is another harlot saint), we have the same phenomenon where [Pelagia is] often portrayed with strong desires before she becomes a Christian, but Kassía does not do that. She doesn’t go into these wild fantasies, but she just says she gave herself to Christ.

Alexander: Actually, what you were just saying there then reminded me of the economy also of her poetry that you talked about earlier, Thomas. This very much is reflected in the earliest music that we have actually, the version that we recorded from the old medieval manuscripts, in that where some of the modern settings of it are very emotional, that with all sorts of almost “flash and trash” sometimes in some of the modern chant settings, that her one is very restrained melodically.

Perhaps we can listen to a bit of the end of that. It's mostly told in the first person, and after the person who has through saying all these things about repentance, then she recalls Eve in the garden and speaks of the feat that Eve heard in paradise and hid herself in fear. Then it ends with a final prayer, “Who can search out the multitude of my sins, the depths of your judgment, my savior, savior of souls?” We’ll pick it up there in the hymn, and you will hear a couple of times the soloists in the choir doing an intonation, Neagie, which is essentially reminding the choir of the mode, the scale that they're supposed to be singing.

[Standard (Old Sticherarion) version of the Sticheron Idiomelon for Holy Wednesday, “Lord, the Woman Found in Many Sins.” Eng. trans. Ephrem Lash]

Τῇ Ἁγίᾳ καὶ Μεγάλῃ Τετάρτῃ
Εἰς τὸν ὄρθρον
Δοξαστικὸν τῶν ἀποστίχων
Ἦχος πλ. δ'

[Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα Γυνή, τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη Θεότητα, μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν, ὀδυρομένη μύρα σοι, πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ κομίζει. Οἴμοι! λέγουσα, ὅτι νύξ μοι, ὑπάρχει, οἶστρος ἀκολασίας, ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος, ἔρως τῆς ἁμαρτίας. Δέξαι μου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων, ὁ νεφέλαις διεξάγων τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ· κάμφθητί μοι πρὸς τοὺς στεναγμοὺς τῆς καρδίας, ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανούς, τῇ ἀφάτῳ σου κενώσει· καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας, ἀποσμήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν, τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς μου βοστρύχοις,]

Νεάγιε ·οὓς ἐν τῷ Παραδείσῳ Εὔα τὸ δειλινόν, κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα, τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη. Νεανανεάγιε · Ἁμαρτιῶν μου τὰ πλήθη καὶ κριμάτων σου ἀβύσσους, τίς ἐξιχνιάσει ψυχοσῶστα Σωτήρ μου; Μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς, ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος.

On Great and Holy Wednesday
At Matins
Doxastikon of the Aposticha
Mode Plagal 4

[Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving your divinity, took up the role of myrrh-bearer, and with lamentation brings sweet myrrh to you before your burial. “Alas!,” she says, “for night is for me a frenzy of lust, a dark and moonless love of sin. Accept the fountains of my tears, you who from the clouds draw out the water of the sea; bow yourself down to the groanings of my heart, you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable self-emptying. I shall kiss your immaculate feet, and wipe them again with the locks of my hair,] 

Neagie – those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself in fear. Neananeagie – Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the depths of your judgements, my Saviour, saviour of souls? Do not despise me, your servant, for you have mercy without measure.”

Anna: Thank you very much, and listening to this beautiful music, I would like to thank you both again for joining us today. I hope that our audience will also enjoy this special podcast interspersed with hymns, sang by the Cappella Romana. Thank you both. Thomas and Alexander, thank you.

Thomas: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Alexander: Thank you so much.

Podcast musical theme is from the Concerto in E-Flat “Dumbarton Oaks” by Igor Stravinsky, recorded by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Slowik, conducting. As always, thank you for joining us, and we hope you join us again in the next episode.