When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.
But she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.
Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”
Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.