The Hejnał Trumpet Call of Kraków: Fact vs Fiction


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St Mary’s Trumpet Call, or Hejnał Mariacki, has been played in Kraków’s Main Square on a daily basis since the 14th century to signal the time. This highly traditional tune is known to almost every Pole and due to its long-standing history, a plethora of stories and myths have grown onto it, making it a very rich cultural phenomenon.

On the hour, every hour

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A trumpeter playing St Mary’s Trumpet Call from the top of St. Mary’s Tower in Kraków, photo: Piotr Polak/PAP

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Based on five notes in the F-major scale, St Mary’s Trumpet Call is a simple melody that manages to be both majestic and catchy. Heavily laden with connotations of Polish history, whenever it rings out across Kraków’s famous square, it strikes a sentimental chord in the hearts of most Poles. Due to its importance, the historian Norman Davies described it in his 1996 book Europe: A History:

(…) The hejnał mariacki or ‘trumpet-call of St Mary’s’ is one of the many curiosities of old Cracow. It is sounded from the top of the tower of the ancient church which overlooks the city square. It is sounded on the hour, every hour of the day and night, winter and summer; and each time it is repeated four times: to north, south, east and west.

Norman Davies on the Trail of Anders' Army

The 82-metre-high tower from where the trumpet rings out is called Wieża Mariacka or St Mary’s Tower. It is part of the 14th century St Mary’s Basilica, one of the most prominent places of worship in Poland, let alone the city of Kraków. The call has been every single day for over six centuries. The only exceptions were in the 19th century (when many towns started perceiving trumpet calls as no longer necessary) and in World War II, due to German occupation. In 1927, Polish Radio began broadcasting the call all over Poland, and it has been aired at noon ever since, with the exception of the WWII years.

Being as deeply rooted in Polish identity as it is, St Mary’s Trumpet Call is sometimes considered a sonic representation of the country. In an old Polish Radio broadcast, the noted architecture professor Wiktor Zin phrased it like this:

This incredibly charming melody (…) somehow symbolises, to a certain degree, Poland in its entirety.

A Hungarian morning & a Tatar arrow

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Kraków, photo: Jacek Kadaj/Getty Images

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Surprisingly, the etymology of this Polish-to-the-bone melody’s name is actually Hungarian. ‘Hajnal’ in Hungarian means ‘dawn’ and also ‘reveille’. Polish adopted the word in the form of hejnał (pronounced: hey-now) and gave it the meaning ‘trumpet call’. What connects this meaning to the break of day is the fact that originally, in the Middle Ages, the call was played at dawn and dusk to tell the gatekeepers when to open and shut the city gates. Polish Radio’s website informs that in the old days:

It was also used as a warning signal when there was a fire in the city or when approaching enemy forces were spotted. Only later the custom appeared of playing the hejnał in the four cardinal directions, every hour.

The first mentions of the sound being heard hourly come from the mid-15th century. The historian Leszek Mazan says that the idea to play the call every hour was a way of assuring people that the trumpeter – or the one on the lookout – wasn’t preoccupied with something other than the city’s safety, namely dozing.

This warning function used to be of the highest importance according to the most popular legend about the call. It claims to explain why the melody curiously ends on a somewhat unexpected short note.

The story goes that during the Tatar invasion of Poland in 1241, a sentry was playing St Mary’s Trumpet Call from the church tower to warn the inhabitants of Kraków about the enemy troops nearing the city. While he was sounding the alarm, a Tatar arrow reached his throat, taking his life and abruptly ending the melody. Thanks to the sentry’s bravery, however, the citizens had enough time to take refuge from the marauders. The call’s ending commemorates the trumpeter’s heroic stance.

A prophecy, a novel & a prank

Interestingly, this highly popular legend – known to pretty much every Pole – is said to have first been put into writing by a foreigner. The American Eric P. Kelly, a noted journalist and author of children’s books, tells it in his 1928 historical novel The Trumpeter of Kraków, which he wrote after working briefly as a lecturer at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University. The author must’ve encountered the tale during his stay in Poland:

A Tartar below crouched to his bow and drew back the arrow as far as he could draw. The string whirred. The dark shaft flew like a swift bird straight for the mark. It pierced the breast of the young trumpeter when he was near the end of his song—it quivered there a moment and the song ceased. But, still holding to the trumpet, the youth fell back against the supporting wall and blew one last glorious note; it began strongly, trembled, and then ceased—broken like the young life that gave it birth (…)

This American connection leads some to believe that the legend is actually a fake. For example, the historian Michał Rożek calls the tale a ‘mystification’ and claims it’s merely a 20th-century invention. He believes that Eric P. Kelly, intrigued by the call’s ending during his stint in Kraków, asked a local about it and was told the pretty story in reply as a sort of prank. In this version of events, the false tale gained momentum when the American turned it into his successful historical novel. That in turn triggered an interest in the story in Poland. Due to its appeal, the tale went on to become a popular domestic legend, one that many consider a classic Polish narrative…

Others argue that the story must’ve been known earlier, but was only present in the oral tradition. Kelly’s story does call on detailed knowledge of Kraków’s history, namely that St Mary’s Basilica stands on the foundations of a former, Romanesque church, and that quite probably there was once an earlier tower where St Mary’s Tower stands today. That earlier tower could’ve existed in the times of the Tatar invasion in the 13th century. The current St Mary’s Tower couldn’t have, as it is part of the basilica that was only consecrated around 1320. Since the story is an educated one and echoes real events, it may well be a legitimate local legend.

Muddling things further, there’s another story that involves the theme of the hejnał being interrupted by a bowman’s shot:

There’s a certain legend in Samarkand. Or actually a prophecy. Long ago they took part in the Tatar invasions of Poland. And one time they reached a city ‘which for you – the Uzbek told me – is like Samarkand is to us’ (…). From one of the city’s minarets – as they say – a prayer was being played on a trumpet. The Tatars sneaked right up to the walls wanting to take the city by surprise (…). And when the trumpeter finally had a chance to alarm the city, with an arrow from a Tatar bow, they pierced his throat. He died but the city had been warned and defended itself.

Seeing as Samarkand used to be the capital of Uzbekistan and Kraków was once the capital of Poland, it becomes clear which Polish city is described in this excerpt from the short story Trębacz z Samarkandy (‘The Trumpeter of Samarkand’). It was published in 1945 by the journalist and writer Ksawery Pruszyński, not long after he had been to Central Asia with General Anders’ Army, during World War II.

The ‘prophecy’ he mentions said that interrupting the call (mistaken for a prayer) cursed the Uzbeks with bad luck which wouldn’t go away until ‘in the main square of Samarkand a Lechite trumpeter would play the tune that then hadn’t been finished’. Because of the prophecy, the Uzbeks were very hospitable toward the Polish soldiers who came to their land to form the General Anders’ Army and eventually convinced the force’s trumpeters to play the hejnał in the Samarkand’s square, which – after all those ages – put an end to the curse.

The trumpeter’s apprentice

Let’s leave legends aside now and look at some concrete facts about St Mary’s Trumpet Call. It turns out nobody knows who composed the famous tune nor when.

The earliest mention of it can be found in the city of Kraków’s expenditure records. In the year 1392, the city was paying a trumpeter in St Mary’s Tower the sum of half a grosz (a halfpenny) weekly. Evidently, back then the hejnał wasn’t as cherished as it is nowadays. As already mentioned, the tune originally served as a means of signalising certain events and actions, and only later when that role became superfluous did it become associated chiefly with telling the time. The first trumpeter in the tower known by name was Iwan Mikulski, who appears in the city records for the year 1629. Also, in what might be seen as a possible origin by those who believe the Tatar legend is only a 20th century one, a trumpeter was recorded as having actually passed away in the tower whilst playing the hejnał. On 3rd July 1901 at approximately 9PM, Antoni Dołęga played the melody three out of the four times before dying of a heart condition.

Historic Salt Mine in Wieliczka and the Kraków Saltworks Museum – Image Gallery

The aforementioned Leszek Mazan says that back when Dołęga was a trumpeter, the top of the tower probably still had quarters for musicians. A living space was there from at least the early 16th century, according to historical sources, because there were no stairs. Reaching the top required using (troublesome) ladders and took well over an hour. During his lengthy shift, a trumpeter didn’t have enough time to leave his post and return in time for the call, so he basically lived up there. It’s hard to establish exactly when the stairs appeared, but since organised tours of the tower only began after World War I, the staircase must’ve been added before then, probably during the renovation that began in 1902 under the supervision of the architect Jan Zubrzycki. Today, after another renovation in 2014, there are 272 steps leading up to the top and a trumpeter needs about 3 minutes to climb them. A bit of an improvement compared to the ladder days…

But the many changes that have reshaped the context of the hejnał over the years haven’t, however, severed its traditional connection to fire fighting. Aside from being a skilled musician, every trumpeter entrusted with playing the hejnał has to be a fireman as well, and as such is subject to physical and psychological tests. For a civilian to get the job, they need to complete a 177-day-long training course at a fireman’s school. A recent article on the Polish Radio website details the trumpeters’ duties:

A trumpeter works for 24 hours straight, after which he has a 48-hour break. The trumpeter plays the call on the hour from 8 until 7 the next day. Two trumpeters work on one shift. (…) The trumpeters also play religious and historical tunes at certain official events, show tourists around the tower and give interviews about the tower and the call. They don’t participate in missions of a strictly firefighting nature.

The team of trumpeters working in the tower counts seven people. Last year it saw a change when Zygmunt Rozum retired and his place was taken by Krzysztof Krawczyk, his former pupil at the Fire Brigade Orchestra in the village of Głogoczów near Kraków. The incoming trumpeter commented on his new role for the Dziennik Polski daily:

This is a rather symbolic change because the apprentice shall substitute the master.

Some madman playing on the trumpet

Due to both its melody and fame, the hejnał draws attention from numerous, often acclaimed musicians. Sometimes they are even allowed to play the trumpet call from the tower, substituting one of the regular trumpeters. Among those granted the honour was, for example, the Grammy-winning American smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti who performed the ancient tune in 2015, while on tour in Poland. In 2002 the Polish vocalist Krystyna Prońko, well known for her 1983 pop song Jesteś Lekiem na Całe Zło (You’re the Cure for All Evil), played the call to celebrate the Krystyna name day. She wasn’t the first woman to play the call from the tower – that title was taken by Anna Kula, a student at the Academy of Music in Kraków, when she played on New Year’s Eve in 1993.

Of course, the hejnał is also performed outside the tower. For example, the noted Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stańko played it in 1997 from the top of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science to commemorate the funeral of Piotr Skrzynecki, creator of Kraków’s famed Piwnica pod Baranami cabaret. Due to the sad nature of the event, the musician transposed the tune into a minor scale. Also, the hejnał is known to have been performed at the Kraków music venue Żaczek where the once highly-popular, Warsaw-based urban folk band Projekt Warszawiak played it at a concert in 2012.

Although it may seem that basically everybody loves the trumpet call that is not always the case. Some see its relentless repetitiveness in Kraków’s Main Square as bothersome.

After arriving in Kraków I stopped at an inn near the Main Square and would’ve slept well if not for some madman playing on the trumpet from the tower every hour.

The visitor so disgruntled with the classic tune was none other than Bolseław Prus, one of Poland’s most important writers, who included the complaint in a journalistic text written for the Kurier Warszawski daily in 1877.

But it ought to be said that such voices are in the minority as people really do tend to enjoy St Mary’s Trumpet Call a lot. The Polish Radio says that its daily broadcast of the hejnał at noon which started in 1927 is ‘the longest running serial broadcast on Earth’. Let’s hope it goes on until the end of the World. And a day longer.

Author: Marek Kępa, April 2018

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