Working on this beautiful anthem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ahead of our Christmas Carol Service, I was inspired to do a little research. It’s a 1918 setting of the following poem by Frances Chesterton (1869-1938):
Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head;
All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.
Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword
(Defend with it Thy little Lord!),
For incense, smoke of battle red.
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,
Touched by such tiny hands and
Oh such tiny feet.
Frances Chesterton (née Blogg) has been somewhat overshadowed in posterity by the fame of her husband G. K. Chesterton. Although the published author of four books, she is best known today for another Christmas poem,’How far is it to Bethlehem?’, set to a hymn tune and frequently subject to such twee renderings as these two. Howells’s setting of ‘Here is the Little Door’ is perhaps the perfect antidote to an over-sweetened Christmas, taking a subtle approach to a deeply ambivalent text.
Howells has been a large part of my musical life, mostly through accompanying his ever-popular settings of Evening Service from the 1940s and 50s, particularly the Gloucester Service and Collegium Regale. These settings are renowned for their sensitivity to the canticles as poetic texts as opposed to simply liturgical ones. The musical language is characterised by a combination of a Tudor-esque modal style and modern added harmonies. Howells’s Tudor obsession was greatly influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis had a revelatory impact on the younger composer at its premiere in 1910 at Gloucester cathedral.
Even in the relatively early ‘Here is the Little Door’ there is an indication of the mystical choral style that Howells would later make his own. The poem depicts the visit of the Magi, first through evocative description of the traditionally attributed gifts – gold, myrrh and incense. Howells uses a modal harmony throughout, with a hushed opening in A minor leading soon after to a blazing cadence in C major for ‘Our gift of finest gold’. At ‘Incense in clouds about his head’ Howells uses his characteristic ‘Phrygian’ flattened second in the bass (see Pike (1984) for more on this). Indeed there is a brief settling on the Phrygian 2nd as a chord of Eb major at ‘sleep’ before a minor plagal cadence (with added 7th!) leads us to the D major conclusion of the first verse.
The second verse is where Howells’s word-painting comes to the fore in illustrating the ambivalence of Chesterton’s text. Christ repays the Magi with his own gifts – a sword and the smoke of battle, and returns the myrrh for embalming the ‘honoured happy dead’. A far cry from the childish innocence of ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’. Howells first flags up the new atmosphere in his use of a modal B minor cadence (as opposed to G major in the first verse) on ‘lift up your hands, O lift’, and depicts the ‘keen-edged sword’ with a unison phrase on ‘Defend with it Thy little lord’. The piece then safely returns to rest with a repetition of the sublime extended plagal cadence of the first verse.
Despite this resolution, there is an uncomfortable tension wrought by the poem and setting which cannot be ignored. How can a message of peace and love be reconciled with a call to arms? Perhaps ‘Here is the Little Door’ can serve as a salutory reminder; that there is an ever-present possibility for bold faith to be used in the service of deadly hate.