About a dozen women gathered around a piano in the basement of St. Joseph Church in Clayton on Feb. 28.
“Be very tidy about counting and word accents here,” Nori Fahrig reminded the group as they worked their way through Josef Rheinberger’s 19th-century “Agnus Dei.”
“Only when we have mastery over the basics can we communicate this music in a beautiful way,” Fahrig said.
Fahrig is the director of Polyhymnia, an all-women’s choir formed in 2020. The group is made up of women from all over the archdiocese, ranging in age from early 20s to 50-plus — some are church music directors themselves, some sing in other choirs, but all share a love of complex choral music.
Fahrig, also the organist and director of music at St. Joseph Church, comes from a “high octane” choral background. Before moving to St. Louis in 2019, she taught at St. Paul’s Choir School in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusettes. As she settled into the St. Louis community, she was searching for similarly challenging opportunities and met a few other women with similar musical interests and talents.
“I felt like there was a vacuum for this (kind of music) and a need for it, and a need for these ladies to be able to use their talents and not ‘hide them under a bushel,’” Fahrig said.
Polyhymnia (“many hymns”) performs a mix of sacred music written for the liturgy, such as Gregorian chant and different Mass settings, and polyphonic pieces from the classical fine arts tradition, such as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion solos, that were composed for religious devotion but not typically used during the Mass. The selections date from medieval times all the way through the modern day.
Gregorian chant is a musical style named for Pope St. Gregory I, developed in the first millenium of the Church. Gregorian chant is characterized by its simple, singular melodies, designed to make it easy for a congregation to join in singing during Mass or while praying the psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours. Polyphony — “many sounds” — is a style of choral music that uses several different musical parts to create harmonizing melodies.
The group offers about four to five concerts a year at different churches around the archdiocese. By bringing their variety of sacred music and choral anthems to different parishes, the group hopes to expose as many people as possible to a kind of music they may not have heard much before.
“We hope that they’ll be exposed to it and be open to different experiences of what music is,” Fahrig said.
The complex nature of the musical selections is one reason the group members enjoy it so much.
“Polyphony takes time to digest,” Fahrig said. “It’s not immediate satisfaction. It takes a lot of sacrifice to learn it, because it involves a lot of time and energy. That attracts me, honestly, and I think it’s what attracts a lot of the ladies here. All these ladies are so highly intelligent and hunger for more.”
The group also offers mentoring opportunities for teen girls interested in sacred choral music. Last year, the group joined teens from Epiphany of our Lord Parish to sing with them for a special requiem Mass. Two teenage girls from St. Joseph Parish and a Cor Jesu Academy student have previously performed with the choir on organ and harp.
“It is vitally important to me that music and traditions are passed on the future generations,” Fahrig said.
Elena Farel, a musicology doctoral student at Washington University and parishioner at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, has been singing in choirs for years. Polyhymnia allows her to flex her musical muscles in creative and challenging ways, she said.
“I really love projects like this because it’s such a wide variety of music, everything from medieval to Renaissance to more contemporary crunchy, fun harmonies,” Farel said. “It’s really combining the scholarly with the spiritual.”
Farel also loves the chance to dive into the history of music in the Church through the ages.
“(We hope to bring) a sense of the depth and the beauty of the Church’s tradition of music,” Farel said. “There’s so much beautiful music out there that’s part of our heritage.”
Kate Angeli makes the drive from her home in Washington to sing with Polyhymnia.
“It just feels like a little slice of heaven,” Angeli said. “Life can be so busy and hectic and crazy all the time, and then we just stop to take time to sing this type of music. It’s very different, and it’s kind of transformative.”
It’s also a way to offer her talents back to God, she said.
“It’s a prayerful way of doing it, as well. Just for me, personally, I’m not a performer as much as I just enjoy making beautiful music for God,” Angeli said. “This offers a way to sing the music as it was written — as a prayer.”
Watch a clip of Polyhymnia rehearsing “Tanquam Agnus”: https://stlreview.com/35IghWg
Listen to Polyhymnia on SoundCloud: https://stlreview.com/3CAcMx5
>> Upcoming performances
Laetare Sunday concert: 3 p.m. March 27, Basilica of St. Louis, King of France
Ascension concert: 3 p.m. May 29, Little Flower Church
Assumption concert: 4 p.m. Aug. 14, Our Lady of Providence Church
Requiem Mass: 7 p.m. Nov. 2, Epiphany of our Lord Church
Lessons and Carols: 3 p.m. Dec. 4, St. Mary Magdalen Church, Brentwood
All concerts are free and open to the public. Donations accepted.