Hymn of Cassia

The most famous of her compositions is the eponymous Hymn of Kassiani (also known as the Troparion of Kassiani), sung every Holy Wednesday (commonly chanted late in the evening of Holy Tuesday).

Tradition says that in his later years the Emperor Theophilus, still in love with her, wished to see her one more time before he died, so he rode to the monastery where she resided. Kassiani was alone in her cell, writing her Hymn when she realized that the commotion she heard was because the imperial retinue had arrived. She was still in love with him but was now devoted to God and hid away because she did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow. She left the unfinished hymn on the table. Theophilus found her cell and entered it alone. He looked for her but she was not there; she was hiding in a closet, watching him. Theophilus felt very sad, cried, and regretted that for a moment of pride he rejected such a beautiful and intellectual woman; then he noticed the papers on the table and read them. When he had finished reading, he sat and added one line to the hymn; then he left. The line attributed to the Emperor is the line “those very feet whose sound Eve heard at the dusk in Paradise and hid herself in fear“. Legend says that as he was leaving he noticed Kassiani in the closet but did not speak to her, out of respect for her wished privacy. Kassiani emerged when the emperor was gone, read what he had written and finished the hymn.

The Hymn of Kassiani is chanted only once a year during Holy Week, at the end of the aposticha at Matins on Great and Holy Wednesday, which is traditionally served in Tuesday evening. The music for the hymn is slow, sorrowful and plaintive. It lasts about ten to twenty minutes, depending on tempo and style of execution. It requires a very wide vocal range, and is considered one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding, pieces of solo Byzantine chant, and cantors take great pride in delivering it well. It is also sung by choirs in unison, often underpinned by Byzantine vocal bass drone. The faithful make a point of going to church specifically “to listen to Kassiani” that evening.

This Hymn is one that I have heard for a few years now and like many, look forward to every year. It is one that the chapel which I attend sings every Holy Wednesday, the Wednesday leading up to Easter and they do a profoundly moving job of it.

The Hymn can be sung in many tones, this is the one we have always done (and I think the most beautiful) and I think that this is the ‘Bulgarian Tone,’ though I may be mistaken, I have also heard that it is in ‘Tone 8’, but my knowledge of Orthodox tones is very limited.

While I have a moment between things to do I wanted to post this for whomever finds it. I don’t know who sings this version but they do an admirable job. It is the first recording of this tone that anybody I know has been able to find, they extracted it off the cd and sent it around.

A dropbox download link is the best I am able to offer without wordpress hosting.

The words are as follows:

The woman had fallen into many sins, O Lord, yet when she perceived Your divinity, she joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearing women. In tears she brought You myrrh before Your burial.

She cried, ‘Woe is me!’ for I live in the night of licentiousness, shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin. But accept the fountain of my tears, O You who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds. Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart, O You Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension.

Once Eve heard Your footstep in paradise in the cool of the day, and in fear she ran and hid herself. But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet and wipe them with the hair of my head. Who can measure the multitude of my sins, or the depth of your judgments, O Savior of my soul! Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy.”

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