THE TROPARION OF KASSIANI for soprano and choir. Texts from the Greek Orthodox hymnology in Byzantine Greek by Kassia (c. 810 — before 867). 2004. Commissioned by The Byzantine Festival in London  for Patricia Rozario and the English Chamber Choir. 24 minutes. 


My relationship with the text of this Troparion goes back to my childhood. For approximately ten years (until my late teens) I sung drones in a chorus every Sunday at the psaltery of my parish church in Volos, my home town in Greece. The Troparion of Kassiani, sung late in the evening on the HolyTuesday was one of the highlights of the church year. By far the longest chant of liturgical music, it often became a vehicle for display of cantorial virtuosity, but also of expressive prowess, a quality rather foreign to the normally stern and impersonal ideal for musical delivery in a church setting. When I became versant in classical Greek, at least enough to understand the actual meaning of the text, I realized that the reason for this hyper-expressivity in the musical renderings of this particular chant is the text itself.

One of the few liturgical texts in the orthodox canon written by women, The Troparion of Kassiani literally bursts at the seams with emotion and feminine energy. It is a confessional by Mary Magdalene to her Master as she pours myrrh over His head just before His Passion, an act that was met with criticism by the disciples and particularly Judas who after that incident decided to part company with His Master and the rest of the group. Maria Magdalene’s predicament was in some ways similar to the author of the text, Kassia a ninth century poet, composer and abbess; the first woman composer in history whose work survives today. According to tradition Kassia was shunned by emperor Theophilus as a possible bride during an imperial bridal show because of her response to a sexist slur of his (he said that women were the source of sin, implying Eve, and she responded that women were the source of salvation implying Mary the mother of Christ). Rejected by men, both women found solace in God. In exploring Magdalene’s emotional state, Kassia is in fact exploring her own and the result is powerful and sublime at the same time.

For many years this chant was in my mind as something that I should visit creatively when the time was right. I am fascinated with the biblical character of Mary Magdalene, more so than any of the other members of Jesus’ inner circle. She is a powerful and at the same time elusive figure, one clearly not understood by Jesus’ disciples. That she was close to Him is evident from the scriptures. She was singled out for the honour of witnessing Christ’s Resurrection before anyone else. Jesus chastised Martha, her and Lazarus’ sister, for chastising her during one of His visits to their home. Some esoteric proto-Christian traditions like the Gnostics considered her the first and most important of the Apostles. Probably in reaction to the emphasis placed on her by the Gnostics, the Orthodox literature does not mention her at all after the Resurrection: not a single mention in the Acts or in subsequent literature. What happened to her after Jesus’ Ascension? What role did she play during Christ’s life on earth?

It is certain that Jesus was the subject of extensive criticism by orthodox Jewry for indulging such a woman of low repute in His company. It is probable that, at least in the early stages of His ministry, His own disciples, who on the evidence of the scripture appear quite confused about the ways and teachings of their Master did not harbour any noble feelings or attitudes toward her. Their patriarchical and morally strict culture was probably at odds with Christ’s forgiving attitude towards the prostitute who became part of their circle. All this must have forced her into a more direct relationship with Jesus, one that was not mediated by others, except perhaps the other women of the group, many of whom might have had similar reservations towards her as did the men due to her well known past.

How did she feel towards Jesus? The short answer must be ‘intensely’. She was so grief stricken by His passion and death and harboured such a sense of loss and despair that she failed to recognize Him when she visited His grave mistaking Him instead for the gardener. Her blinding sense of loss betrays a woman in conflict: worshiping her God, but at the same time devastated by the loss of the physical man. When she realized her mistake in the garden she instinctively rushed towards him to physically touch him —a habitual reaction, one would assume—and He stopped her, for the regeneration of His resurrected body was not yet complete (not too long afterwards, when that regeneration was complete and His body could transform at will into either its physical or its ethereal state, He challenged Thomas to touch Him).

Kassia’s Magdalene constantly bounces between depths of despair and heights of spiritual passion, often with wild mood swings in the process. The depictions of utter darkness and cosmic majesty often within a single sentence, as well as the passionate pleading for mercy and the intense spiritual devotion that borders on the erotic ("I will wash your immaculate feet with a thousand kisses and wipe them with the locks of my hair") makes this a quintessential text for setting to music. In my musical scrutiny of this enigmatic figure, I have followed my own intimations on the text and its central character, but in addition, I have taken into account my own personal history with this text and its subject. The Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) music is ever-present in this work. My setting starts and ends with it but in the course of the work one encounters other, quite diverse music genres, such as Western European classical music, minimalism and atonality. At one point members of the choir are even asked to improvise freely in the ‘Blues’ style. Far from being a stylistic smorgasbord, this eclecticism in the music is meant to serve the emotional/psychological underpinnings of the text.

In terms of its content, I have divided the text into five sections: the first and the last are devotional and confessional in nature; the second is dark (Magdalene describing the pull that sin and darkness has upon her); the third is full of cosmic splendour while the fourth is a brief description of the original fall in Paradise. Each of these sections is delineated musically in a different manner: the first and last in predominately Byzantine and Western European sacred music genres; the second with rather dark tone clusters and disconcerting, continuous vocal glissandi; the third in the style of high Romanticism while the fourth is set in a style of Western minimalism and Blues (the description of the fear that overcame Eve at the sound of God’s feet in Paradise). Furthermore, the fact that the commission of this work was intended from the outset for a premiere at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, one of the great churches of Christendom with an amazingly long acoustic resonance, was taken into account in the composition of the Troparion. The work is designed to thrive in a large acoustic space where intense moments in the music (and continuous glissandi) become animated and three-dimensional.

During the late eighties I made a brief pilgrimage to Mt. Athos, a monastic self-governing community of men in Northern Greece, which is one of few remnants of the once powerful Byzantine Empire that have enjoyed uninterrupted existence since the first Christian Millennium. On that occasion I had the privilege of meeting in person the late Elder Paisios, a man who has by now become a legend amongst the Eastern Orthodox communities, and who is informally worshipped as a Saint. "Gheron Paisios" as the Greeks called him, said that at some point in my career I should pay homage to the music that I grew up with, that is the Byzantine music tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, "for that is the music of the Angels". I still don’t know what kind of music the Angels sing (although I suspect it is much less self-conscious than mine) but the composition of The Troparion of Kassiani has accorded me moments of pure spiritual delight and deep communion with our common source and ultimate destiny. I am, therefore, grateful to Elder Paisios for his suggestion and to my Lord and Master for the inspiration; for without Him, "nothing could be made that was made".

The Text:

Kyrie, i en poless amartiess
peripessoussa ghini,
tin syn esthomeni theotita, myrophorou
analavoussa taksin, odhyromeni,
mira si pro tou entaphiasmou komizi.
Imi! leghoussa, oti nyx mi iparchi,
isstross akolassiass,
zophodhiss te ke aselinoss,
eross tiss amartiass.
Dhekse mou tass pighass ton dhakryon,
o nepheless dhieksaghon tiss thalassiss to (h)ydhor.
Kamphthiti mi pross touss stenaghmouss
tiss kardhiass,
o klinass tous ouranouss, ti aphato sou kenossi.
Kataphilisso tous achrandouss sou podhass,
aposmikso toutouss dhe pallin,
tiss tiss kephaliss mou vosstrichiss;
on en to paradhisso Eva to dhilinon,
kroton tiss ossin ichithissa, to phovo ekrivi.
Amartion mou ta plithi,
ke krimaton sou avissouss,
tis eksichniassi psychossosta Sotir mou?
Mi me tin sin dhoulin paridhis,
o ametriton echon to eleoss.

  Sensing your divinity Lord,
a woman of many sins,
takes it upon herself
to become a myrrh bearer
and in deep mourning
brings before you fragrant oil
in anticipation of your burial; crying:
"Woe to me! What night falls on me,
what dark and moonless madness
of wild-desire, this lust for sin.
Take my spring of tears
You who draw water from the clouds,
bend to me, to the sighing of my heart,
You who bend the heavens
in your secret incarnation,
I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses
and wipe them dry with the locks of my hair;
those very feet whose sound Eve heard
at the dusk in Paradise and hid herself in terror.
Who shall count the multitude of my sins
or the depth of your judgment,
Saviour of my soul?
Do not ignore your handmaiden,
You whose mercy is endless".


Premiere performance: March 11, 2004. Patricia Rozario, soprano; The English Chamber Choir under the direction of Guy Protheroe at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, UK. Part of Byzantine Festival in London.

Reviews and Comments:

  ...the Iselers rendered the piece in an astonishingly high level and Patricia was excellent as always...this to me is a reminder of how happy and fortunate I am to be back here...I felt like God was there too. The important thing is that once a listener is tuned in to this ever vital presence, he/she forgets about all the little technical things, regardless as to whether these details are a display of virtuosity on the part of the composer and/or the performer, or an error in performance. These things are more apparent when a listener is narrow-minded and does not allow God to enter their inner self, allowing for a great view of what really is out there. And it is also amazing to think that this experience is for myself and perhaps a lot of your audience members greater than that of an actual ecclesiastical ritual. This is of course not an entirely new concept, we both know that, but it is a concept in its Renaissance at the moment. Let's wait and see what He has on hand for us as artists and for humanity as a whole for the next few decades. I think about this a lot and I have high hopes. C. C. Toronto, ON 2007

I just wanted to congratulate you on an amazing performance last night —Your piece was so creative (loved the staging) and absolutely beautiful. It is such a pleasure having you as my teacher—I have learned so much in the past couple years and grown tremendously as a composer. Thank you for your inspiration! L. S. Toronto, ON. 2007

Congratulations on the premiere of your composition, The Troparion of Kassiani, Saturday night. The music was evocative; the soprano superb. How wonderful to set the words of Kassia, a Byzantine nun whose poetry we are a bit familiar with. At times the music seemed to place us exactly in medieval Byzantium! Thank you for a most enjoyable evening. E. G. Toronto, ON. 2007

the show on Saturday eve was quite wonderful...those piercing microchords [?] from the soloist and the other sopranos were particularly memorable. J. O. Toronto, ON. 2007

...You blew me away. Again I was reminded how music, secular, sacred, pop, classical you name it, if it is the product of genius, it will move us. And that's what you do better than any of your contemporaries. I know that you don't need for anybody to put down (that's a bit harsh), lets just say "compare" your work to one of the other composer's on the program...but how could I not?  He has and will always have that Presbyterian approach which to me always comes across as too cold and "churchy"—the kind of stuff we (I) ran away from when I turned 18....Whereas you, oh you go for the jugular and you don't let go until the last drop of blood has been drawn. And that can turn any slacker into a believer (at least a contender). With profound understanding of the text and the respect for Kassiani the woman,  you gave us an huge gift—a big box of—dare I use the word - lyrical - lines at once mysterious and secret, then sensual and raw, all wrapped up in a never ending ribbon of heartbreaking truths. Patricia absolutely perfect—I believed I was in the presence of tormented Mary Magdalene—the flesh and blood one... this was an evening never to be forgotten. L. V. Toronto, ON. 2007

Friday night's concert by Cappella Romana at St. Mary's Cathedral grew out of a fortuitous encounter at the Byzantine Festival in London in March 2004. The Portland-based choir, specialists in Byzantine and Byzantine-influenced sacred music, happened to perform at a concert that also included a new work featuring the extraordinary soprano Patricia Rozario, a versatile singer best known for her collaboration with the English composer John Tavener. Rozario and Alexander Lingas, Cappella's founder and music director, proposed giving the U.S. premiere of the piece, Christos Hatzis' "Troparion of Kassiane." Their conversations resulted, a year and a half later, in one of the choir's most memorable offerings, despite a sprawling (and for the singers, challenging) program. Based on an ancient hymn whose vividly expressive text concerns Mary Magdalene's devotion to Jesus, Hatzis' "Troparion" is a concert in itself, a huge piece encompassing multiple choral styles. Beginning and ending with the music of the original hymn, it unfolds in a series of Protean transformations—one section sounds like Francis Poulenc, another is reminiscent of Brahms, yet another evokes concert arrangements of Afro-American spirituals—as the soprano carries the traditional core. Rozario combined a powerful presence with a superbly controlled voice. Her vocal range was remarkable not only for its breadth but also for its evenness—she projected a clear, forward tone even in the dark depths of mezzo-soprano territory—and if you didn't know that the piece was written for her, you probably would have suspected it, so commanding and secure was her performance. James McQuillen, THE OREGONIAN (USA) October 24, 2005

A professor of composition at the University of Toronto, Hatzis wrote "Troparion" on commission for the 2004 Byzantine Festival in London, in which Rozario sung. It was at that festival, at St. Paul's Cathedral, the soprano met Lingas and Cappella Romana, which performed in a separate work. The piece, according to the composer's notes in the program, is a "highly personal reaction" to a hymn he remembers from his youth in Greece. Not only does it suggest traditional music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but it also was influenced by traditions of the medieval West, as well as 20th-century compositional styles such as minimalism and atonality. The combination is both striking and remarkable, all the more so because of Rozario's incisive musicality and gleaming tone. R. M. Campbell. THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER (USA). October 24, 2005.


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