A Thousand Stars

In the German Democratic Republic, where I was born, one of the most popular Christmas songs was Tausend Sterne sind ein Dom. It was written in the aftermath of World War 2, by the music student Siegfried Köhler.  I heard and sang it from when I was about seven, and I vividly remember being impressed with the match between its remarkably poetic lyrics and its tender and serene music. Here’s a recording you might enjoy:

I sang it again, for the first time in many years, with a large group of friends at the Secular Solstice 2013. But Secular Solstices, even in Germany, are generally held in English. So for the 2014 Solstice, I wrote a translation of the lyrics into English, and it goes like this.

A thousand stars erect a shrine
of wordless worlds embracing night.
A candle blooms and spreads its shine
and fills our hearts with such delight.

Within its silence we rejoice,
enraptured by this blissful light,
as if this shrine could have a voice
that rings throughout this solstice night.

From now the darkness falls away
for we have lit this light of ours.
Into next years it shows our way
on through these silent, starlit hours.

Classical music enthusiasts might be interested to learn that the piece is a Christmas cantata, a very specific genre popularized through some truly astonishing examples by Johann Sebastian Bach. The musical score and German lyrics for Tausend Sterne are apparently still copyrighted, though widely available on the web. Various composers have written arrangements for different choirs, instruments and ensembles – all of these will work with these English lyrics. For the translated text, the CC0 license applies, so you can use them however you want. If you do, I’d be happy to hear about it.

Any translation of poetry is necessarily a re-interpretation, but in this case it was possible to remain fairly close to literal, and to the emotive vibe, of the original. I could even step up the rhyme scheme into ABAB. (The original rhymes on every second line.) I added an unstressed syllable to the beginning of each stanza, which means you start singing one note early compared to the original lyrics. This makes all the lines regular iambic tetrameter and makes them easy to sing as a canon. The word “solstice” is a deliberate replacement of “Christmas”; change it back if you prefer.

A year ago this translation became part of Raymond Arnold‘s Hymnal for the Secular Solstices, so now it’s going places. I might as well post it here too. If that helps this lovely little song spread from German speakers to English speakers, I figure it makes the world a tiny bit of a better place.

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