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How a church hymn became a national anthem

In the summer of 1841, Alberik Zwyssig (1808-1854), a priest and composer from Uri, was visiting his brother at St. Carl, a magnificent patrician’s house at the gates of Zug, when he received mail from Leonhard Widmer (1809-1867), a music publisher, journalist and lyricist from Zurich. The mail contained a patriotic poem that Widmer had written and wanted set to music. Zwyssig chose to use a hymn that he had composed to the psalm "Diligam te Domine" (I will love Thee, O Lord) for an ordination service in 1835 when he was music director at the monastery in Wettingen. He worked on his adaptation until late autumn. Finallly, "on the evening of St. Cecilia's day, Monday, November 22, 1841 in the first-floor study at St. Carl overlooking the lake and the city", Zwyssig rehearsed his "Schweizerpsalm" [Swiss Psalm] for the first time with four residents of Zug.

In 1843, the new patriotic song appeared in the celebration brochure of the Zurich Zofinger marking the anniversary of Zurich’s membership into the Swiss Confederation in 1351. (The Zofinger association is the oldest Swiss student fraternity). It was also performed at the National Singing Festival in the same year, where it was received with acclaim by the audience. The "Swiss Psalm" was soon performed by male choirs throughout Switzerland (thanks to translations) and was frequently sung at patriotic celebrations. Numerous attempts were made between 1894 and 1953 to have it declared the Swiss national anthem, but they were consistently turned down by the Swiss government for the reason that a national anthem should not be selected by government decree but by popular opinion. In fact, there was another song that was used for official political and military occasions at that time which was equally popular. "Rufst Du mein Vaterland"[When My Fatherland Calls] was sung to the same melody as "God save the King (Queen)", which occasionally led to embarrassing situations as international contacts increased during the course of the 20th century.

It was for this reason that the Swiss government declared the "Swiss Psalm", a fully and unmistakably Swiss creation, the provisional Swiss national anthem in 1961. Following a three-year trial period twelve cantons (or states) voted in favor of the "Swiss Psalm", seven requested an extension of the trial period and no less than six rejected it as the official national anthem. In spite of these mixed reactions, the "Swiss Psalm" was confirmed (provisionally) as the Swiss national anthem in 1965. The provisional clause was abandoned ten years later, but without official ratification as the national anthem. A number of other suggestions for a national anthem were made in the years that followed, none of which, however, earned nearly as many votes as the "Swiss Psalm". Finally, on April 1, 1981, the "Swiss Psalm" was officially declared the Swiss national anthem, "a purely Swiss song, dignified and ceremonial, the kind of national anthem that the majority of our citizens would like to have."

The text of the "Swiss Psalm"

Leonhard Widmer's German text and its (at times rather free) translations in the other three national languages speak of the many timeless natural beauties of Switzerland - the magnificent Alps, the calm lakes, the fertile pastures - of the peace that its inhabitants find here, and of the divine gift which it represents.
(Text: Coordination Commission for the Presence of Switzerland Abroad.)
Back to overview Swiss National Anthem

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