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Swiss sing few praises for national anthem

Not everybody knows the lyrics of the national anthem by heart

(Keystone)

Switzerland’s national anthem – the Swiss Psalm, as it is known - is a regular subject of controversy, especially ahead of National Day on August 1.

Several attempts to introduce another hymn have failed over the past few years, and the wider public appears to be indifferent.

If the surveys are to be believed, a third of the Swiss don’t know the national anthem. And only a very small percentage know the lyrics by heart.

The Swiss media appear to leap on the subject with somewhat clocklike regularity - not least because of a general dearth of news during the height of the summer.

Still, stories about the anthem and the alleged ignorance of Swiss citizens sell and help to fill a gap in local radio programmes and newspapers.

It is probably safe to say the text of the Swiss Psalm, at least in the German-language version, is divisive and has not aged very well with time.

Pompous or dignified

Some criticise the anthem as old fashioned, pompous, nationalistic, out of touch with reality or chauvinistic and egocentric.

But others see the Swiss Psalm as a perfectly appropriate expression of national pride with all its references to God Almighty, as the first few lines reveal (unauthorised translation).

"When the morning skies grow red/and over us their radiance shed/Thou, O Lord, appeareth in their light/ when the Alps glow bright with splendour/ pray to God, to him surrender."

The Swiss government shares certain reservations about the tune and the lyrics, but has made it clear it wants to keep the current anthem which it considers dignified and ceremonial.

God save the King

It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that the hymn by 19th century composers and songwriters Alberik Zwyssig and Leonhard Widmer officially became the Swiss national anthem.

Before that Switzerland used the same tune as Britain ("God Save the King/Queen" by Henry Carey), but with different lyrics.

The introduction of the Swiss Psalm in 1981 might have put an end to decades of searching for a suitable anthem, including a period with a provisional hymn. But the criticism never really stopped.

Several alternative versions were mooted over the years, including lyrics from Friedrich Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell or from Switzerland’s famous 19th century author Gottfried Keller.

But so far all attempts to find a new anthem have ended in failure.

Hard to understand

Newly-elected parliamentarian Margret Kiener Nellen has put the issue of the national anthem high on her political agenda.

In spring 2004 she called on the government to replace the Swiss Psalm, which she considers bombastic and written in a heavy, out-of-date style.

"Many people can’t understand the lyrics and I’m told the tune is not very easy to sing the words to," said Kiener.

But nearly 18 months on the Social Democrat is still waiting for her proposal to be tabled for a general debate in parliament. She is a little bit annoyed about the delay but adds it is not unusual in politics.

Kiener criticises the government for its lack of pluck to promote a new and more forward-looking anthem.

"The government could launch a competition through the Federal Culture Office," she said. Kiener believes there is enough interest among musicians and authors.

"I have already received up to 30 proposals by people who heard about my initiative in parliament," she said.

But why is the history of Switzerland's national anthem not a song of glory?

According to Kiener it reflects an identity and mentality problem, particularly among the majority German-speaking Swiss.

"Unlike our Italian and French-speaking fellow citizens we find it hard to show enthusiasm for life."

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The current anthem, also known as the Swiss Psalm, was only made the official national anthem in 1981.
The lyrics are from 19th century songwriter Leonhard Widmer and Alberich Zwyssig, a priest and composer.
From 1894 onwards the government faced numerous calls to declare the Swiss Psalm the national anthem.
Until after the Second World War, Switzerland often used the same tune as Britain ("God Save the King/Queen").

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