Hymn to the Fallen Woman



by musichub USER (10 Reviews)
June 13th, 2021 | 5 replies

Release Date: 1000 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Part I -- The birth of notation, Byzantine chant, and feminine piety

Before delving into this review, a brief word: this account will be tracking the development of music from the time when it was concretely recorded, in this case not on plastic but on paper. The advent of a uniform, widely-accepted system of music notation is where many histories of music are forced to begin, as before this time, music was either transmitted orally or written down with systems that are not as well-preserved. Individual pieces of music from ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and early imperial China survive but exist only as the manifestations of well-meaning, yet inherently incomplete "early music" performances. It is only when standardized notation is invented by the Franks in the late ninth century, for the purpose of transmitting Roman liturgical chants throughout western Europe, that we can determine anything substantive about what music may have sounded like and how exactly it was performed. Thus, it is here where the journey must start.

Kassiani (a.k.a. Kassia; c. 810 - c. 865) is neither the first composer we know by name, nor the first whose music is preserved, but she is perhaps the first that we know anything substantive about. Born into a well-off family from Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, Kassiani rejected the advances of then-Emperor Theophilos and left to form a convent in the western side of the city, where she became a high-profile advocate for Orthodox religious practitioners at a time when the Byzantine rulers were suppressing certain aspects of their worship. This was during the Second Byzantine Iconoclasm, when the veneration of religious figures was punishable by whipping or even death -- it was a point of fraught tension between the Byzantine Church of the East and the Roman Church of the West. Kassiani's legacy survives not only in the contemporary writings of others, but in those from her own hand: she wrote a wide array of poems and hymns, the latter often accompanied with a system of musical notation that, due to being very similar to the style emerging in western Europe at the time, allows modern performers to recreate her melodies accurately. Her narrative voice continues to receive praise for its wit, and her lyrics are unmistakably written from a very feminine (feminist?) perspective.

Kassiani's most famous piece goes by several names: "Hymn of Kassia", "Hymn of the Fallen Woman", or simply "The Fallen Woman". Like all of her other hymns, the piece is written as a monophonic chant, to be sung by multiple singers in unison. Polyphonic singing was still considered verboten by the main Christian religious institutions at that time, as it was seen as a hallmark of secular music that should not be merged with the solemnity of worship. By this time, however, even the performance of monophonic chant had attained a degree of complexity, in part because it had spread across the entirety of Europe and each individual region had adopted certain characteristics of performance unique to that region. While Byzantine chant is no different in its individuality, we can hear certain melodic characteristics that overlap with Roman chant, as well as choices of scales (modes) that show influence from their eastern neighbors, the Persians. In this niche is where the music of Kassiani falls, and "Hymn of the Fallen Woman" arguably typifies the style, at least to the extent that we are aware of it.

Performances of "Hymn of the Fallen Woman" are typically dour and somber, often drawn to lengths in excess of 10-15 minutes. Lyrically, the piece is a plea to the Christian God, a cry for forgiveness from a woman who has dealt in sin. The piece's association with feminine sin continues to this day, as performances of it in Greece are often attended by sex workers who otherwise avoided worship for fear of judgment. The term "fallen" refers not to the woman's death but to her being consumed by sinful acts, from which she wishes to repent. Part of a translation by H.J.W. Tillyard is included here:

Lord, the woman fallen in many sins, seeing Thy Divinity,
Taking the part of myrrh-bearer, wailing bringeth to Thee myrrh against Thy burial.
Alas, she crieth, for that night is to me the wildness of sin, dusky and moonless, even the love of transgression.
Accept the springs of my tears, who with clouds partest the waters of the sea:
Bend to the groanings of my heart, who hast brought down Heaven by Thine ineffable humiliation.

The female relationship to music has been a complex one since the beginning of time -- in the West, women went from being the main practitioners of ancient secular music (often depicted either singing or with drums/lyres -- it's from this that we encounter the stereotype of the "Siren", the woman luring men to their death with her songs of temptation and lust) to being completely forbidden from performing in medieval Christian churches. To that end, it is amazing how much music written by female composers still survives from this era, and it may explain why the legends of composers like Kassiani exist far beyond most of their male counterparts. As with every write-up that is not attached to a specific recording, this one will end with a link to a selected recording of the work, so we can gather an idea of how it sounds in performance.

Cappella Romana (2021): https://open.spotify.com/track/01kFxkiWxPZasPTi3Ciahs?si=393b35df81a44ff0

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Comments:Add a Comment 
June 13th 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

Second try's the charm, hopefully the date issue is fixed now.

Staff Reviewer
June 13th 2021


Very well written, informative review, pos and keep writing.

June 14th 2021


Cool review. It takes me back to freshman year of high school when I took Music appreciation.

June 14th 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks to you both. The goal is to trace a sort of musical history in these reviews, starting with these medieval works and transitioning first into Western classical music, then into popular music when the genre becomes especially prevalent in the late 1800s. So expect a lot of classical reviews from this account for now, but jazz, rock and pop are going to get *plenty* of time to shine in the future, not to fear. (:

August 9th 2021


mid, if you want to listen to real music listen to pink floyd or the beatles.

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