O.J.'s Trumpet Page Articles and reviews

Hejnal Mariacki - The Krakow Bugle Call

A Trumpeter playing Hejnal Mariacki Tower with bugler playing in window

In February, 2005, I visited Krakow in Poland. I stayed in a nice hotel, Wit Stwosz. This hotel is in the old town (Stare Miasto) not far from the main market square. From a window in the hotel I could see the tower of the Church of St. Mary (Mariacki). Every hour a window was opened in the tower and the bell of a silver trumptet could be seen. Then a bugle call was heard.

Hejnal Mariacki - music notation
The story of the Hejnal:

In tourist guides one can find the story of this bugle call. Here is one example:

From the tower of the Church, for centuries past, the Hejnal, or Hymn to our Lady (whose Church it is), was played by a trumpeter. He played it four times to the four winds, and he played it every hour.

One day, many, many years ago, as he played, the trumpeter saw in the distance a cloud of dust which grew bigger with every passing moment. It was a large army of Tatars galloping towards the city. These cruel invaders from the east had more than once advanced to Krakow, nay, even farther, and they had pillaged and burned, looted and murdered and carried off the young people to be slaves in their camps. The trumpeter was horror stricken. How could he warn the city, how could he convey to the people the approach of danger and give them time to prepare their defense? There was only one thing he could do. To go down into the town and spread the alarm would be foolish, for it would waste precious minutes. He must play the Hejnal, over and over. That would surely arouse the citizens, they would certainly be aware of approaching danger. So he played, again and again. At first the people of Krakow were puzzled.

Why was the trumpeter playing over and over? and with such loud urgency? But they quickly realised that it was a warning and that from his lofty tower ha had seen danger approach. The soldiers sprang to arms and took up their stations on the walls of the city. The burgesses ran to secure their houses and place their wives and children behind locked doors. The apprentices seized their arrows and their cross-bows, the artisans seizes what tools they could lay their hands on, and they all marched to the defense of their city. Suddenly, the sound of the Hejnal ceased abrubtly.The notes had reached the ears of the Tatars as they approached, and their keen eyes had espied the figure of the trumpeter. As soon as they came within bow-shot, their leader, the surest marksman of them all, loosed his bow, and the deadly projectile logged in the trumpeter's throat.

But his task was accomplished, and Krakow was saved. Thanks to his warning, the people were able to defend their city, and they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Tatars, killing one of their princes.

And since that day, the Hejnal has been broken off at the same note on which it was broken off by the Tatar arrow in honour of the trumpeter who gave his life for the city.

"The Trumpeter of Cracow":
The Tatar invation was in 1241. Is it really possible that this signal was played at that time? Knowing more about trumpet history than most tourist in Krakow, I started questioning this while I listened to the bugle call. When I came home, I did a little search and here is part of what I found:

Please go to the Church of St. Mary (Mariacki) on the corner of the main Market Square - you really can't miss it. Listen to the bugle that announces the hour: its call, known for centuries as the Hejnal Mariacki, is curiously truncated. Many people in Cracow today will explain this as a tradition which dates back to 1241, when a bugler was allegedly killed by an arrow from Tatar invaders as he sounded his alarm. That is also what you will find in most of the tourist guides. It is through customs such as this that the past is alive in the present, even in a complex modern society such as ours. Indeed this bugle call was adopted in 1927 by national radio, and a live rendition (not a tape) is transmitted every day at midday. The replacement of a communist government by a democratic one has not affected this sort of cultural continuity.

But the history of this custom is more complex than most citizens realise. In fact the use of a bugle call for timekeeping cannot be found in historical records until the end of the fourteenth century. The custom went into abeyance in the seventeenth century but was revived in 1810. However, the connection with the Tatar invasion of 1241 was not made until the inter-war years of the twentieth century. In 1928 an Irishman called J. P. Kelly published a children's book in the United States called 'The Trumpeter of Cracow', and it is this version which is now repeated in city guidebooks and engraved into the consciousness of residents. So, far from being evidence of the persistence of ancient custom, this is an apt illustration of globalisation and 'invented tradition'. But though there is probably no direct link between this bugle call and a historical event in 1241, this does not detract from its meaning for Polish people today. Please think of comparable examples of invented tradition from the histories of your own countries. What are the major landmarks in popular perceptions of past time? Can history and myth always be kept quite distinct?

Don L. Smithers:
The trumpeter Don L. Smithers has written about and recorded the Hejnal. The recording can be found on the LP entitled: "The Trumpet Shall Sound" (Philips 6500 926). It is played on a trumpet in D - at the beginning of the LP and then at the end (up one octave).

Here is a quote from
Don L. Smithers, The Music and History of the Baroque Trumpet before 1721, (Dent, London, 1973, pp 130-131.):

"While nearly every large town and city in Europe before the Industrial Revolution had its trumpet blowing, Stadtpfeifer watchmen, this long and important tradition was allowed to atrophy in all but one place. The Polish capital of Krakow is a unique exception. It is a tribute to the intelligent preservationists in Poland today that the remarkably preserved medieval city of Krakow still maintains the office of the fire watchmen trumpeters. Krakow still knows the charm and security that towns like London, Nuremberg and Leipzig once did many years ago. Almost unbelievably, the Krakow fire department maintains six tower watchmen trumpeters who, in pairs, share the endless cycle of twelve-hour morning to noon and twelve-hour noon to midnight watches from the highest point in the city. This is at the top of the taller, octagonal north tower of the thirteenth-century church of St Mary the Virgin, whose Veit Stoss altar piece is one of the world's rarest treasures. From high up above the equally medieval market square the six fire-brigade trumpeters take turns playing a natural trumpet tune called the 'Hejnal' (pronounced 'hey-now'), which is heard each hour, four times on the hour, twenty-four hours per day, 365 days a year. With the exception of the era during the Napoleonic wars, this is a nearly unbroken tradition since 1241. That was the year when a Krakow trumpeter supposedly had an enemy arrow shot through his neck while in the process of sounding an alarm from his post on top of the city wall to warn the town of approaching Tatar invaders. To commemorate this act, all subsequent Krakow alarm-trumpeters are reputed to have abruptly broken off the melody-signal, which the hapless trumpeter is said to have been playing at the time. The sudden break in the melody still heard today vividly reminds us of the deadly, however legendary, marksmanship of the Tatar archer and the implications of an invading army.

"The 'Hejnal' has most certainly been played this way since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Playing each hour to each of the four corners of the world, but today on modern Czech B flat trumpets, the firewatch trumpeters can be heard all over Krakow within the old city walls. Outside the walls, the Krakow trumpeters are heard live all over Poland once each day at noon, again playing the 'Hejnal' four times to the four compass points of the globe, simultaneously broadcast on all programmes of the State radio and television. The effect of this tradition is quite unlike anything now known in the West. It might well be a salutary one if revived, particularly once it is realized that the office of the trumpeter-tower watch is in part ecclesiastical and that the trumpeters are reminding us not only of our safety but of our  responsibilities to God and to one another."

Sound samples:

o.j. 2005