The Myrrh-Bearer

The Myrrh-Bearer

1993, 40' Chorus and orchestra

Solo instrument: viola | Chorus: SATB | Orchestration: perc

Languages: English, Greek

The eponymous myrrh-bearer of this work is the subject of a troparion, or short hymn, written by the Byzantine Saint Kassia (also Cassiane), in the mid-9th century. Kassia was born into a wealthy Constantinople family and is reputed to have grown into an exceptionally intelligent and beautiful woman. Some chroniclers claim that, when at the age of 17 the Emperor Theophilus was required to choose a wife, Kassia was his favoured participant in the customary bride show. Seeking to measure her character, he goaded her: ‘Through a woman came the baser things,’ an openly provocative reference to Eve’s transgression and ensuing human suffering and sin. Kassia rose instantly to the challenge, countering: ‘And through a woman came the better things,’ a redemptive reminder of the delivery of Christ’s earthly manifestation through a mortal woman. His pride wounded, Theophilus chose another bride and Kassia went on to found an abbey, writing poetry, music and hymns. In most accounts, their mutual romantic feelings endured despite divergent paths, and at the end of his life Theophilus attempted to visit Kassia at the abbey. Witnessing his approach, she left the hymn she was writing on her desk, hid and watched as he wept for the love they had relinquished. Aware of her presence, he respected her wish to remain unseen and instead read through her work, adding one line before leaving. Traditionally, it is held that Kassia abandoned her hymn at the line, ‘I will kiss thy immaculate feet/ and dry them with the locks of my hair,’ to which Theophilus added: ‘Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise/ and hid herself in fear,’ before granting her return to solitude. This, her most famous composition, became known as the Hymn of Kassiani and is sung on Holy Wednesday in Orthodox services.

Yet other accounts have Kassia continuing a relationship with the Emperor as his mistress, and it is this version in combination with the penitent theme of the troparion from which Tavener drew inspiration. The poet underwent prayers of deep repentance, and the myrrh-bearer to whom she likens herself refers, in Eastern Orthodoxy, to the female followers of Christ — among them Mary Magdalene — who presided over his burial and, returning after the Sabbath to the tomb to anoint his body with myrrh, discovered that he had risen. The solo viola is intended to reflect the text, simultaneously representing the spiritual elevation of both Kassia and Mary Magdalene: ‘Sensing Thy divinity, O Lord, a woman of many sins/ takes it upon herself to become a myrrh-bearer.’

The music follows its subject from profound penitence to the clear and infinite expanses of an enlightenment that has moved beyond intellectual capacity, as the viola is driven from its very lowest note by an increasing ecstasy, punctuated by the prosaic anarchy of the chorus and bass drums’ worldly concerns.

Finally the viola — Mary Magdalene — falls at the feet of Christ, recognising his divinity and the irrelevance of human constructs, even as the chorus delivers its emphatic final ignorance of God, countering, ‘We have no king but Caesar - Caesar - Caesar!’