A popular update for the Swiss anthem

Werner Widmer is delighted to have his words chosen for the anthem Keystone

Switzerland has chosen a new national anthem – sort of. Two years after the start of a contest to create a new hymn, the winner was announced on Saturday at the Swiss National Folk Music Festival in Aarau. Now the next phase – convincing the country to adopt the hymn – will begin. 

This content was published on September 13, 2015 - 12:16
Jeannie Wurz, in Aarau,

The winning composition, written by Werner Widmer of Zurich, creates new lyrics for the 170-year-old original melody by Alberik Zwyssig. The organisers had made clear early on that their preference would be for composers to stick to the original music, which is more popular than the original lyrics, as closely as possible. 

Although a contest winner has been selected, “we’re not going to storm the parliament building,” said Jean-Daniel Gerber, president of the Swiss Society for the Common Good (SSCG), which organised the contest. Rather, the organisers will seek out various ways to promote the winning piece, for example, among schools and choirs and sports clubs. 

It will be necessary to obtain approval for the new anthem from the Swiss cabinet or parliament, or in a national vote, since there is no official procedure for replacing a national anthem. But there is no fixed timetable for the next steps. 

“When it has reached the tipping point in the population – which could take months, or even years – then that will be the moment to take it to the parliament or the cabinet,” Gerber said.

The winner and his text

Throughout the two-year contest the identities of the individuals and groups who submitted new anthems were closely guarded. The winning entry was chosen during a television broadcast on Saturday, and Lukas Niederberger, director of the Swiss Society for the Common Good, had to prepare three versions of the press release because even he didn’t know which of the three finalists would win.

“White cross on a red background” was the winning composition, submitted in German by 62-year-old Werner Widmer of Zurich, a healthcare director, professor and economist with a diploma in teaching music theory from the Bern Conservatory.

Widmer spoke with swissinfo about what the win means to him.

At an awards ceremony following the broadcast, Widmer said he was motivated to enter the contest because he thought the national hymn needed a new text.

The challenge of combining the values in the preamble to the Constitution with the old melody “to create something new and complete” was what appealed to him. “It was a very creative and playful undertaking,” he said.

For Widmer, the fact that the contest focused on values was an important point.

“We’re a land of minorities,” he clarified. “Unlike many other countries we don’t have a single language that unites us. We don’t have a state religion that unites us. We’re not surrounded by the sea, like in England. That means that our values are very important. Our shared values have been a bit neglected, I think. Our values brought us to where we are today, and they should help us solve problems together in the future.”

Open to change

There were already some encouraging words on Saturday night from some older members of the public sitting in the audience of the television programme where the winner was announced.

The contest rules required that submissions be written in one of the national languages. In the version sung by the Swiss Youth Choir on Saturday night – referred to by the organisers as “the Swiss verse” ­– German, French, Italian and Romansh appear alternately.

“The one that they presented is okay for me,” said one woman. “I’m happy it ended up the way that it did.” 

Swiss Society for the Common Good

Another requirement of the contest was that the entries use music “similar” to the music of the current hymn. Many Swiss say they like the music but feel that the words are out of date. 

“I like the new French text. I thought it was very nice,” said another woman. 

“With the old melody,” chimed in a third.

A third criteria for the contest was that the new anthem be easy to sing – not just by a choir, but also by the average citizen.

An older man at the table admitted: “I couldn’t sing the old hymn. And now I’ll have to learn a new one.” 

Will that be difficult? 

“It’s already common that we get flyers with the text of the anthem on the 1st of August,” said one of the women. “It will be easy. If you’re already familiar with the melody then it doesn’t matter what the text is. I think it’s good this way.”

The contest

During the first half of 2014, competitors submitted 206 usable entries: 120 in German; 69 in French; ten in Romansh; and seven in Italian.

A 30-member jury, representing Switzerland’s four language regions, then reviewed the entries.

The jury chose six semi-finalists and had their works translated into all four Swiss national languages. The Swiss Youth Choir prepared four videos for each of the six contributions. Voters online could choose from among the videos from the end of March until mid-May.

Organisers announced the three finalists at the end of May. The second round of voting lasted from June to September.

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