Until recently, I thought Hildegard was the oldest woman hymn composer with extant hymns still sung, but she was in the Western tradition. Others in the Eastern Orthodox tradition are even older. The most remarkable is St. Kassia (also mentioned as Kassiane, Kassiani, Casia, Ikasia and other variations) a Byzantine composer, the first female composer in world history whose compositions have come down to us. She was born between 805 and 810 to a wealthy family in Constantinople. Her father served in the emperor’s court. Kassia was educated privately and received special education in philosophy and theology. Her beauty and intelligence were apparent at an early age. Historians from the 10th century say she was a participant in the “bride show” organized for Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. Such events involved the selection of a bride with a token of a golden apple, and were popular among the elite in Byzantium in the 8th and 9th centuries. The young emperor was attracted to her, went past two lines of potential brides, presented the golden apple to Kassia, and told her “Through a woman came the baser things” referring to the sin of Eve. She responded saying, “And through a woman came the better things” referring to the Virgin Mary. With his pride wounded by her response, he rejected her and chose the more silent Theodora as his wife. Kassia’s impertinent response defied Byzantine tradition of silence and obedience to male supremacy. Ironically, Theodora as empress restored icons to worship after the iconoclastic emperor’s death in 842, ending his fierce persecution of those who venerated icons, including Kassia, whom he ordered scourged with a lash. For Kassia, the only choices for women of higher estate were either marriage or monastery. She accepted the monastic life. By 843, she had founded her own monastery on the 7th hill of Constantinople and she spent the rest of her life as abbess. There she composed music and lyrics for services in the monastery as well as music to the poetry of others. Only about twenty-four compositions of both text and music verified to be her work survive and are in Orthodox Church liturgical books. All her compositions are notated monophonically as per the custom of medieval Byzantine liturgical music, but were usually sung by two choirs. One sang the notated melody and the other sang an improvised drone. About 789 non-liturgical verses also survive. Kassia eventually moved to the Greek Island is Kasos where she died. Her tomb is in a church in the city of Panaghia. Her feast day in the Orthodox Church is September 7.
Her most famous work is “The Fallen Woman”, also known as the Hymn of Kassiani, which is sung only in the Matins of Holy Wednesday. The chant is slow and sorrowful, requires a wide vocal range, and is considered one of the most demanding pieces of solo Byzantine chant. In some places in Greece, this Matins service and its hymn are popular with sex workers, who often avoid church at other times. It is about the woman, thought by some to be Mary Magdalene, who washed Christ’s feet and wiped them with her hair as found in Luke 7:36-50. It is considered in part autobiographical. Emperor Theophilos regretted his rejection of Kassia and tried to meet with her. Though she avoided him, she felt she had returned his love and had become a fallen woman herself. Legend has it that while she was writing this poem, the emperor made an unexpected visit to the monastery. When she saw him approach, she hid to avoid the temptation of old passions overcoming her monastic vow and left the poem on her desk. He entered her cell, read the unfinished poem, and added the line: “Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise in the afternoon and hid in fear.” After he left, she found the addition with its double meaning: Eve hiding from God and Kassia from Theophilos. And though it is out of context with the theme of a fallen woman, she kept the addition, an addition that made the hymn well known. She is apparently the only hymnist who wrote a penitential hymn of the fallen woman. You can hear a performance with English subtitles of this hymn by the choir of St. Symeon of the New Theologian Orthodox Church (OCA) of Birmingham Alabama on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zY5x1kPlwE.