Before the cradle

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 laß dirs wohlgefallen.

2. Da ich noch nicht geboren war,
da bist du mir geboren,
und hast mich dir zu eigen gar,
eh ich dich kannt, erkoren.
Eh ich durch deine Hand gemacht,
da hast du schon bei dir bedacht,
wie du mein wolltest werden.

3. Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht,
du warest meine Sonne,
die Sonne, die mir zugebracht,
Licht, Leben, Freud und Wonne.
O Sonne, die das werte Licht
des Glaubens in mir zugericht’,
wie schön sind deine Strahlen!

4. Ich sehe dich mit Freuden an
und kann mich nicht satt sehen;
und weil ich nun nichts weiter kann,
bleib ich anbetend stehen.
O daß mein Sinn ein Abgrund wär
und meine Seel ein weites Meer,
daß ich dich möchte fassen!

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,
Thy spirit rested on me
And chose that I should be thy own
Before I thought upon thee.
Before thou made me by thy hand,
Thou counseled thy eternal plan,
To win redemption for me.

3. I wandered lost in dark of night;
Thou rose as sun prevailing,
A sun that brought renewing light,
Life, love, and joy unfailing.
O sun that strikes the glowing spark
Of faith within my fearing heart,
How lovely is thy dawning!

4. Unto the cradle I draw near
And find in it salvation;
And finding safety only here,
I stay in adoration.
O had my mind the world’s breadth,
O had my soul the ocean’s depth,
That I might fully know thee!

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6 comments for “Before the cradle

  1. Ray
    July 16, 2007 at 12:50 am

    WOW! Thanks, Jonathon. Not knowing German, I can’t speak to the technical merit of the translation, but I can express my appreciation for the result. It is beautiful and moving.

    I too love music, and it never ceases to amaze me what I feel when I hear testimonies beautifully expressed in song. I also don’t like hearing those songs frequently, since I find that reliving the initial feeling of awe and reverence beats hearing it again in almost all cases.

    I was in a ward today that presented a YW’s program – exactly like a Primary Program but done by the YW. It included the song “Daughter of a King” that literally had me crying in the congregation. Hearing and seeing YW’s voices and faces glow as they testified that they are royal by birth and worth something in a world that doesn’t tell them that nearly enough . . . I have four daughters, and I bless the fact that they can claim to be daughters of a King.

  2. Jim F.
    July 16, 2007 at 12:59 am

    Jonathan, very nice. I think that Gerhardt would be shocked by your translation of the second verse, but I like it anyway–and from his place in the Spirit World, he may like it too.

    Though heaven only knows when the next edition of the hymn book will appear, you ought to send this to the music committee to consider for inclusion–and send it with the melody you prefer since that is, by far, the better one.

  3. Adam Greenwood
    July 16, 2007 at 8:02 am

    This would be an excellent Christmas hymn.

  4. July 16, 2007 at 9:15 am

    Wonderful title, with the double meaning of “before.”

  5. Kristine
    July 16, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Jonathan, I love this (of course!). I’m still frequently startled by how tender and intimate a lot of German hymnody seems; sometimes it’s almost more than my repressed Scandinavian can quite deal with! I especially like the way your translation links that tenderness to the larger Plan of Salvation, which we often talk about in such abstract terms. Even though we all know that the baby Jesus ends up being the atoning Savior, I think there’s often a disconnect both in our rhetoric and in our devotional lives. I think you’ve built an excellent bridge.

  6. Jonathan Green
    July 16, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    Thank you for all the kind comments. I have a few more of these translations that I will probably post eventually.

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