There are songs that make me feel that God is all and I am nothing, and that God has given me everything and I deserve none of it, although that is far too precise and theological a description for an experience that is almost entirely pre-rational. I have been overwhelmed by hymns I had thought were long familiar to me as I played through them alone on the piano, and by songs I was singing along with several thousand strangers in a cathedral, and by songs I had never heard before I first heard a recording. I try not to listen too often to these songs, this music before which I am defenseless, because I don’t want to make the experience a matter of mechanical stimulus and response, or to wear out its potential through overuse.
The songs that make me feel like nothing are never about human nothingness, and the songs that overwhelm me are never about the experience of being overwhelmed. The first type of lyric is theologically suspect, and I would probably be too busy arguing against the notion of human nothingness to actually experience it, and the second type is too nakedly manipulative. Singing about being overcome with emotion does nothing for me, emotionally.
The song that perhaps comes closest to putting into words what I am so badly failing to describe is “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). Like a good number of other songs that have broken down my defenses, it was written in German in the 17th century, has a melody from the 16th century and a harmonization by Bach from the 18th, and I’m not satisfied with any of the English translations I’ve seen. So I attempted to translate it myself.
Or, rather, I translated four of the nine or ten verses; I don’t think the last five or six verse add much. Gerhardt is wonderful, but the manner of the day didn’t know when to stop. Other partial translations are available here (three fairly nice verses), here (too loose and limpid a translation for my taste), and here (one verse but with several of the same solutions I used). I prefer this melody to the one used by Bach in the Christmas Oratorio. An excellent performance by the Ensemble Amarcord of Bach’s melody can be downloaded free here, while a passable performance of the melody I prefer is here; the first verse as performed by the Dresdner Kreuzchor can be found between 2:18 and 3:13 of the video segment here. I’m not terribly satisfied with my translation of the second stanza, but I provide it here as an example of how the vague suggestion of a Mormon doctrine in the original, in this case the pre-existence, is brought into full bloom, and then some, in my tendentious translation. The music that overwhelms me may do nothing for you, so cold-hearted critiques of the translation are welcome.
1. Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier,
o Jesu, du mein Leben;
Ich komme, bring und schenke dir,
was du mir hast gegeben.
Nimm hin, es ist mein Geist und Sinn,
Herz, Seel und Mut, nimm alles hin,
und laÃŸ dirs wohlgefallen.
2. Da ich noch nicht geboren war,
3. Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht,
4. Ich sehe dich mit Freuden an
1. Beside thy cradle here I stand,
O Jesus, son of Heaven;
I come and lay into thy hand
What thou to me hast given.
Take all, it is my mind and heart,
Sight, sense and soul, take every part,
And may thou smile upon them.
2. Before I took on flesh and bone,
3. I wandered lost in dark of night;
4. Unto the cradle I draw near