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St. Kassiane

Commemorated on September 7

Musical composition in all forms – classical, religious, or otherwise – has been a creative expression that seems to have been restricted to men, not because women lack the gift so much as they seem to have avoided this art from. From Mozart to the present day, it is difficult to recall a single classical composer on the distaff side but hidden among the great hymnographers, of all time is the exceptional female creator of church music whose creations have been heard for centuries in Orthodox churches where the members are unaware that a woman wrote the inspirational melody.

The exceptional female composer of hymns of the Orthodox Church was a woman names Kassiane. She lived in Constantinople and was a regular attendant at the Royal Court of Emperor Theophilos whose mother, Euphrosene, saw in the brilliant and beautiful Kassiane a likely candidate to become her son’s bride. The field of eligible young women was narrowed down to Kassiane and another lovely girl named Theodora who hailed from Paphlogenia, apparently from a ranking family of the Empire. The final choice was to be made by the young Emperor who elected to have both the girls brought before him so that a final comparison and decision could be made. Since both were extremely attractive, the choice was not an easy one; but the one thing that Theophilos wanted to make certain of was that his bride not exceed him intellect.

In a custom that dated back to the Persians, years before the formation of the Byzantine Empire, a golden apple was to be given to the one who was to be made Empress. Looking at Kassiane, the Emperor stated, “From woman came the worst in the world” (meaning Eve and her original sin). Kassiane calmly replied, “From woman also came the best” (referring to the Virgin Mary who bore the Son of God). The issue was settled then and there, and Theodora got the golden apple.

The last thing that Kassiane wanted was to be Empress. She did not consider it a rejection, but rather that she had been freed to pursue a higher calling as a bride of the King of Kings in a nunnery. For years she had felt the call to devote herself to the Savior, and she left the palace in a happier state than she would have if the Emperor had handed her the apple. After completing her training Kassiane was given leave to devote whatever time she needed to compose an outpouring of music and lyrics born of deep religious conviction and an abiding love for Jesus Christ. Taken not too seriously at first because of male domination in this field, Kassiane established herself as a hymnographer of the highest caliber. Her hymns were so beautiful that they were brought to the attention of the Church Fathers of the day, all of whom acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to compose hymns lofty enough to suit the occasion, the most famous of which is her familiar hymn sung during Holy Week and which bears her name as the “Hymn of Kassiane.”

Kassiane’s hymn reads, in part as follows: “the woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of myrrh-bearer and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, against Thy entombment. Woe to me, saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, O Thou who dost gather into clouds the waters of the seas…” There follow several stanzas in praise of the Lord whose “mercy is unbounded.” This hymn alone assures her place in the Church.

From “Orthodox Saints” by George Poulos