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Switzerland and its anthem(s)

“Radiant in the morning sky...”© swiss-image.ch/Andy Mettler

National anthems as we know them today are a relatively recent phenomenon. They date back to the emergence of the modern nation state in Europe at the end of the 18th century, which brought with it the need for national symbols. The individual states adopted flags and coasts-of-arms as a visual expression of their identity, and national anthems as their audible counterpart. Only a handful of countries already possessed such a thing; the rest had to find them in more or less of a hurry.

Many states simply took old folk songs and gave them new words, while others wrote new ones from scratch. Time was often of the essence. The composer of the Costa Rican anthem, for example, was given just three days to come up with a suitable work, urgently needed for an important diplomatic occasion. His effort is still in use today.
The Swiss, however, believe in taking things at a more leisurely pace. The current anthem was composed in 1841, but it took another 140 years for it to be officially adopted.

“Radiant in the morning sky...”
The current anthem, referred to as the “Swiss Psalm”, was first performed in 1841 and was soon played at various patriotic events. Several times between 1894 and 1953 the Federal Council - the Swiss government - was asked to declare the Psalm the official national anthem. However, the Council did not believe it had won full acceptance among the population as a whole, and responded by saying that it was for the people to show they had chosen an anthem by singing it regularly.

“When you call us, Fatherland”
Another strong candidate for the national anthem was the popular and somewhat belligerent song, "Rufst Du mein Vaterland" - "When you call us, Fatherland" - which was often performed at political and military ceremonies. The words were composed by Johann Wyss, better known as one of the joint authors of the classic children's story, The Swiss Family Robinson. It was sung to the same tune as the British national anthem "God Save the Queen" (incidentally, a tune also used by a number of other European royal houses at the time). However, as contacts between countries increased in the 20th century, awkward situations sometimes arose when both the Swiss and British national anthems were played.

That was why in 1961 the Federal Council decided that a new national anthem should be provisionally introduced. A competition to find a suitable one was held in 1979, but although many entries were received, none provided a convincing alternative to the Swiss Psalm. The Federal Council thus felt itself obliged to declare the Psalm the official anthem on 1st April 1981.

The search for a new anthem
In 2013 the Swiss Public Welfare Society (SGG), a not-for-profit organisation which seeks to foster national belonging and highlight social issues, chose Switzerland’s national day to announce the launch of a competition to find a brand-new anthem that better reflects 21st century Switzerland. However, there are strict rules for budding composers: “The lyrics must reflect the spirit and values of the Preamble to the Federal Constitution. The jury also has to decide whether the melody can be re-worked but remain recognisable”. The competition will run from January to June 2014 and the winning entry will be announced in 2015.

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