The Swiss National Anthem
6 May 2021
Switzerland did not have an official national anthem until 1961. The decision had been preceded by almost a century of searching. There were even competitions to find a suitable candidate.
Until the end of the 1950s, the tunes most commonly played at official events in Switzerland were Rufst Du mein Vaterland (“When my Fatherland calls”) and the Schweizer Psalm (Swiss Psalm) Trittst im Morgenrot daher… (“When the morning skies grow red…”).
The poem Rufst Du mein Vaterland was written by Johann Rudolf Wyss (1782-1830. It was sung to the tune of the British national anthem God Save the King/ Queen. In the 19th century, it was used by numerous kings, dukes and princes of the German Reich.
Nowadays, it survives as the tune of the British national anthem and the tune of the national anthem of the Principality of Liechtenstein (Oben am jungen Rhein lehnet sich Liechtenstein an Alpeshöhn).
The Swiss Psalm
The Swiss Psalm was composed by Alberik Zwyssig (1808-1854). The tune was originally a church hymn based on the psalm Diligam te Domine. In 1841, Zwyssig set the text of the Swiss Psalm to the tune of his melody.
Over time the lyrics of Rufst Du mein Vaterland came to be seen as outdated and the tune led to growing confusion when both the Swiss and British anthems were played. For this reason, there were calls to declare the Swiss Psalm the official national anthem.
The Federal Council expressed its views on the issue on a number of occasions. The first was in 1894. In 1933, there followed a further submission to the Federal Council in the same terms as the 1894 request. The Federal Council issued the same reply as in 1934: the people and cantons should decide.
In 1941, a hundred years had passed since the Swiss Psalm was first performed. To mark this centenary, together with the celebrations of 650 years of the Swiss Confederation (1291), a further request was made to the Federal Council to make the Swiss Psalm Switzerland’s national anthem instead of Rufst Du mein Vaterland. The debate continued in the years that followed.
A parliamentary request by 30 members of the Council of States in 1954 invited the Federal Council to carry out a survey and take steps towards recognising as national anthem a song that accords with the sensibilities of the people.
In 1955, the decision was taken to enter into discussions with the cantonal governments on the matter. In 1961, the Federal Council chose Trittst im Morgenrot daher… to become the national anthem, initially for a trial period of three years.
In 1981, consultation among the cantons resulted in the final decision. The trial period, which had been renewed every three years since 1961, was abolished.
The Trittst im Morgenrot daher… was retained as the official national anthem. A motion submitted in the National Council in 2004 calling for the lyrics of the anthem to be modernised was withdrawn in 2006.
The history does not end here, however. Many people regard the text as out of date, too religious and too Biedermeier and new initiatives are pending.
It shows the careful Swiss decision making procedures and cultural complexity in action. It is not regarded as a problem though. The cantons and the communes are for most citizens the true fatherland and most citizens do not know the text anyway.
The nation is so multicultural and cosmopolitan that one could also imagine an Albanese, Portuguese, Eritrean or Kosovar version, as the national football team, the Nati, shows.
The Swiss national anthem of four couplets is available in French, Italian, Romansh and German.