Hejnał mariacki, the most famous Polish melody

A man in uniform who plays the trumpet.
Everyone who comes to Kraków, even from the most remote corner of the world, wants to hear the St Mary’s Trumpet Call (Hejnał mariacki). It is the pride of the city and one of the most recognisable Polish symbols. However, few people know that the dramatic but also proud history of Poland is enchanted in it. These five simple notes played on a brass trumpet are almost the quintessence of our history. So, listen...

It is a story in which facts mix with legends, truths with mysteries, and living people with ghosts. It is a story that begins in Kraków but also unfolds in distant Asia, on the peak where the largest monastery in Europe is located, in distant Uzbekistan and the United States. For, as Professor Michał Rożek writes, until the election of Kraków Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II, nothing made Kraków so famous around the world as Hejnał mariacki.


What is this melody?


Hejnał mariacki is a straightforward melody based on only five notes in the key of F major. According to musicologists, it is a scheme referring to ancient signalling pieces used, for example, in Hungary. The very word bugle-call in Hungarian means the dawn, the early morning, the morning. It is played every hour from the tower of one of the most beautiful Polish temples – St Mary’s Church by  a special team of Kraków firefighters. And once a day, at noon, it is broadcast on the Polish Radio. Before the 1991 crash of the world's tallest building, the radio mast in Gabin, the Trumpet Call was heard on almost all continents. Firefighters approach the windows facing four directions of the world and play the call in each direction. The direction has a symbolic meaning: to the south, to the royal Wawel Castle, it was played for the king, to the west, to the direction of the magistrate, for the mayor and councillors, to the east for merchants, and to the north for guests who entered through the Floriańska Gate. That is, for you.


How old is the Trumpet Call? Very old! How does one know this? There are preserved accounts from 1392, so a hundred years before the discovery of America, in which the city pays the guards and the trumpeter from the tower of St. Mary's Church, who probably watched Kraków warning of fire or the arrival of foreign troops. The trumpeter also gave the signal to open and close the gates every morning and evening. However, it is unknown if the same melody cwas already played then.


When you stand in front of St. Mary's Church trying to spot the golden trumpet and listen to the bugle call, you will be surprised that the melody abruptly stops. Why? It is supposed to remind the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. So, was this signal played already then?


About the biggest country in the world, which wanted to humiliate Kraków


Almost everyone in the world knows the name of Genghis Khan, one of the most brilliant leaders in history and the founder of the Mongol state, which in the early 13th century became the world's most extraordinary power. After Genghis Khan died in 1227, his successors sought to expand the empire's borders even further, subjugating the Rus and reaching out to the central European countries of Hungary and Poland, which were in the throes of a regional crisis. The Mongols invaded Poland, and soon they were ravaging the countryside. While we may think of the Mongol invaders as primitive and savage warriors, they represented an advanced state structure, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk to the south-eastern areas of present-day Poland, with perfect diplomacy, global strategy, extensive intelligence, sophisticated military engineering, including the use of poison gas, and sophisticated ways to confuse the enemy. Located over seven thousand kilometres from Kraków, the capital of the Mongolian state planned exactly whom to strike at, which cities to conquer, which routes the troops would take, even designating rallying points for the merger of the two armies. The Mongols tried to exclude neighbouring countries from the fight so that the main target of the attack had no chance of assistance. They attacked Poland three times - in 1241, at the turn of 1259 and 1260, and in 1287 and 1288 - each sacking Małopolska. Many towns, castles and monasteries of Małopolska were destroyed, tens of thousands of people were kidnapped. Kraków was also the target of the attack but never succumbed, although it was destroyed. Especially during the third attack, the mighty force of Chief Teleboga crashed into the Wawel Castle and then marched to the Podhale region (a description of the Tatra Mountains and the Podhale region). It also succumbed in the battle on the  Dunajec River to an irregular army consisting, among others, of highlanders! During Teleboga's retreat, he was beaten by Polish knights in the battle of Stary Sącz. These wars led to a collapse of civilisation unknown in western Europe, where the invaders never reached, although they planned such an attack. Their strength was exhausted by the wars with Poland and Hungary.
Legend has it that it was during one of these attacks that a Mongol warrior stroke with an arrow a trumpeter who was alerting the inhabitants of the approaching enemy who had just dug under the fortifications. The bugle call was interrupted and has since been played with a dramatic pause at the end.


The enormous church of the great city


Standing at the St Mary’s Church, you wonder if it was possible to hit with an arrow a man located at the height of over 80 meters, as the bugle call is played from such a level? At the time of the Mongol invasion, there was a completely different temple here - Romanesque in style, probably crude and much smaller in shape, but most likely with a tower - because the religious buildings also had defensive functions. The tower had to be much smaller in height, so theoretically, such a shot was possible. Anyway, the church was utterly destroyed during the Mongol invasions and in its place, already several years after the Teleboga's invasion, a temple in the Gothic style was built, which received a new element and decoration in each subsequent century. In the first half of the 15th century, the north tower was raised, and in 1666 it received the golden crown you can see now. Artistically, it is one of the finest churches in Poland. In the stunning Gothic space, you will find the most significant wooden altarpiece in Europe, created in 1477-1489 by the Nuremberg master Wit Stwosz. His work of art that impresses with its faithful representation of figures and a multitude of details - as well as polychrome paintings from the late 19th century by three of the most outstanding Polish painters of the time: Jan Matejko, Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer.


Let us go back to the Mongol invasions. Poland was then in deep crisis, torn by the country's division into districts and the constant conflict between the princes ruling them. In theory, the ruler of Małopolska with Kraków as its capital was the head of the whole state. In reality, he constantly had to defend his position. However, the destruction of the city by the Mongols was an impulse for development. At the beginning of the 13th century, the position of Kraków as the most important city and capital of the state crystallised; in 1320, it was sealed by the first royal coronation for a long time. When the Piast dynasty ended, Poland was already a powerful central European country, but when the Jagiellonian dynasty took over the throne, Poland, ruled from Kraków, became one of the largest countries in Europe stretching between the Baltic and Black Seas. During the Reformation, it became a model of tolerance in Europe, a refuge for dissenters persecuted on the continent. Like Jews, who were driven out from all over Europe, they found their place in the Polish Kingdom and Kraków.


In the only synagogue in the world…


At the time of the 1264 Mongol invasions, one of the Polish princes issued the Statute of Kalisz as a set of laws guaranteeing the rights of the Jewish population, which had begun to settle in Polish lands since the 11th century. The statute guaranteed Jews almost full autonomy and freedom of faith. In the first half of the fourteenth century, when mass pogroms took place almost all over Europe, especially in German countries, Poland became a place of Jewish settlement for refugees from the continent. In 1334, King Casimir the Great extended privileges for Jews to the entire Kingdom, and they began calling Poland Polin, which in Yiddish means "rest here." For hundreds of years, Jews inhabited our country, having their schools, temples, and assemblies. In many cities, they made up more than half of the population. It is where Jewish culture has survived. Next to Kraków, on the other side of the Vistula River, there grew even the Jewish town of Kazimierz, where Catholic churches and synagogues existed side by side. In one of them, the rabbi was the famous Moshe ben Israel Isserles, the author of the words:


"If God had not given the Jews Poland as a refuge, the fate of Israel would indeed have been unbearable". Isserles is buried in the Jewish cemetery in the centre of Kazimierz, which merged with Kraków into one urban organism. In Kazimierz, you can visit the Old Synagogue, one of the most beautiful examples of Gothic Jewish buildings and one of the few preserved to this day in Europe. Jewish director and writer Natan Gross, who lived in Kazimierz in the 20th century, tells this story:


"On the last day of the Feast of Booths - at Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah) – the Jews celebrate solemnly reading the last chapter from the Bible and beginning to read it anew: In the beginning, the Lord created the heavens and the earth. They dance and sing, after which it is traditional for all those praying to take part in dancing laps around the synagogue, with books of the Torah in their arms. There are seven of these circles - hakafoth. Only in one temple in the world, in the Old Synagogue in Krakow, does the wave of joy suddenly break in the middle of the fourth lap, and the celebrating people begin to read the Psalms. The tradition is connected with a tragic event when the Tatars stormed the synagogue in the middle of the fourth circle and slaughtered the praying people." 


The Tartars are, of course, the Mongols. These two legends of the broken bugle call and the dance complete the story of two peoples living side by side for centuries.


The spiritual capital of Poland


During the reign of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Poland, united in one state organism with Lithuania, became one of the most powerful states in Europe between 1386 and 1572. Kraków, its capital, and the Royal Castle at Wawel teemed with cultural and scientific life and was the place where the most important decisions for this part of Europe were taken. The country developed a form of democracy unparalleled elsewhere, in which the nobility co-ruled with the king, and after the Jagiellonian dynasty came to an end, began to elect the king. The most potent royal families vied for the Polish throne, and their representatives became kings. In 1598, King Sigismund III of the Swedish Vasa dynasty (although a descendant of the Polish king) began to move his court to Warsaw, serving as the unofficial capital. Unfortunate wars and the weakening of Poland led to plundering the country by its neighbours - Russia, Austria and Prussia - at the end of the 18th century. The Poles lost their state for 123 years and were subjected to repressions, nationalisation attempts, and cultural deprivation. During those years, Kraków fell into decline and became a provincial city, but it remained the spiritual capital of Poland. Here, Polish kings - witnesses of the former greatness of the state - were buried in the Wawel Cathedral; here, in the churches, the remains of legendary Polish saints were laid to rest; here, life seemed to be different and already at the beginning of the 19th century, Kraków started to become a place where the Poles from all over the world came to breathe in their culture. What does the St Mary’s Trumpet Call have to do with it? It disappeared with the fall of Poland.


However, it was restored with its entire symbolism and signalling its presence to the world's four corners already in 1810. Kraków, subordinated to the partitioning state, became the informal capital of Poland. Here, anniversaries of great Polish deeds, such as the Battle of Grunwald or the relief of Vienna, were celebrated with great solemnity. Jubilees of great artists who kept the Polish spirit alive with their works were held here. Probably no other nation in the world held its poets in such esteem, and nowhere did poets feel so much at the head of their souls. When they died, often in exile, it was in Krakow that lavish national funerals were held for them. All these ceremonies were accompanied by the bugle call from St. Mary's Church. 


The bugle call of freedom...


The melody of the St. Mary's Trumpet Call was also listened to by Józef Piłsudski's soldiers, who set out from Kraków in August 1914 to take advantage of the outbreak of World War I when starting the fight for Poland's independence. 


The battles of the first phase of the Polish struggle for free Poland were fought in the vicinity of Kraków and Małopolska. It is no coincidence that the first places on Polish soil to declare independence in 1918 were Małopolska's towns - Zakopane, Tarnów and precisely Kraków. It is unbelievable, but a country under foreign rule for 123 years (five generations without a state of their own!) built a strong state in a matter of months, which a year later had to fight a deadly battle not only for a deadly battle its existence. Communist Russia wanted to crush the newly revived Poland and provoke a war across Europe by reaching for Berlin and Paris.


"The Polish war was the most important turning point not only in the politics of Soviet Russia but also in world politics. [...] Everything there, in Europe, was up for grabs. But Piłsudski and his Poles caused a gigantic, unheard-of defeat of the cause of world revolution"


– Vladimir Lenin said of the Polish-Bolshevik War. It was a significant mobilisation of the whole nation, and within a few weeks, almost a hundred thousand volunteers had signed up for the army. They were also from Kraków, like the Kraków platoon of volunteers founded by Zdzislaw Jan Tarnowski, who reinforced one of the most famous Polish horse units - the 8th Uhlan Regiment of Prince Józef Poniatowski, then called the Krakow Land Regiment. It was probably going out into the field to the sound of Hejnał mariacki. Soon, the Regiment played a decisive role in the greatest cavalry battle of the 20th century, when, at Komarowo, after the Battle of Warsaw (called the 18th battle in the history of the world), the Poles finally crushed the Red Army, thwarting the Bolshevik plans of taking over Poland and Europe. Apart from the Poles, the French (e.g. the later French President Charles de Gaulle), English and Americans also fought. Merian C. Cooper, a native of the USA, whose ancestor fought alongside Kazimierz Puławski in the American War of Independence, wanted to repay the Poles and organised an airborne unit made up mainly of Americans, which played a considerable role in fighting at the front. After the War, he became one of the essential film producers and the creator of the famous "King Kong" from 1933. Eric Philbrook Kelly, who would play one of the most critical roles in the St Mary's Trumpet Call history, also served in the Polish Armed Forces. We will return to him again.


After the restoration of independence, Kraków remained somewhat on the sidelines of Polish economic and political life. However, already in 1927, it made itself known. It was then that the Polish Radio transmitted live the bugle call for the first time, determining with great accuracy the hour of noon. The Poles began to adjust their watches to the melody of Hejnał mariacki, which can be heard live in every Polish home since then. It is the most extended broadcasted radio programme in the world. The bugle call also accompanied the most significant Polish funeral ceremony, which took place in May 1935, when one of the fathers of independence, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, died. The coffin with his body was transported from Warsaw to Kraków, and here, on a cannon laver, it was driven through the Main Square, under St. Mary's Church to the crypts of the kings at Wawel. Five years later, in September 1939, when first Germany and then the Soviet Union attacked Poland, World War II began the bugle call fell silent again. The Germans temporarily banned its playing. Almost six million Poles died in this most terrible of wars; three million of them were Poles of Jewish origin.


Hejnał mariacki lifts the curse from Asian warriors and points the way to Rome


The Poles fought and died on all fronts of World War II and were the fourth force of the Allied forces. They created the world's largest underground state, with its administration, judiciary and an underground army of some 390,000 soldiers. Nevertheless, while listening to Hejnał mariacki, you also need to know about two stories that happened during World War II related to the bugle. Listen.
4777 km from Krakow, in Samarkand, almost in the middle of Asia, Polish troops were formed in distant Uzbekistan, which was then part of Soviet Russia. Where did they come from? Following the occupation of Poland by the Soviet Union, almost half of our country's area and half of its citizens came under Communist rule. Hundreds of thousands were deported to distant Asia, usually to labour camps. Around 20 000 Polish officers were sent to special camps, where they were soon murdered by shots to the back of the head. It is the so-called Katyń Massacre. Only a few managed to survive. One of them was the hero of the story "The Trumpeter from Samarkand" by Ksawery Pruszyński. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, its leader, Joseph Stalin, who had previously ordered the murder of Polish officers, permitted the formation of a Polish army and released many Poles from the camps. One of the assembly points was Samarkand. Here, in the autumn of 1941, a strange thing happened. Muslim priests came to the Polish camp and asked to play a tune that had become a curse for their nation. Here lived the brave Uzbeks, who had once been part of the Mongol State and had taken part in the invasion of Poland and the attack on Krakow. An Uzbek warrior was said to have killed a trumpeter from the church tower with a bow when he spotted them trying to capture the city from an underpass. The city was saved, and the Uzbek army and the entire Mongol army suffered a defeat. Even the Uzbek prince was killed. A string of misfortunes began, and the priests ruled that the trumpeter from the tower must have called for prayers, and killing him proved sacrilegious regardless of the faith that the inhabitants of the distant city professed. The curse was to cease when the trumpeter from that nation would appear in Samarkand and finish the bugle call so tragically interrupted. Moreover, the Polish soldier played the St Mary's Trumpet Call. It is one of the most beautiful Polish literary legends. The story never happened, but we, the Poles, believe it did. However, another story is true.


Private Emil Czech from the small town of Bobowa in Małopolska was a soldier of that Army, which was stationed in Samarkand and later found itself in the Middle East and was part of the Allied army attacking Italy. In May 1944, the Germans were fiercely defending themselves in Italy on the so-called Gustav Line - a heavily fortified and challenging to conquer belt of fortifications running through the narrowest part of the Italian peninsula. That was to be the final frontier of the Third Reich. The Germans had been defending it since January 1944, and its breakthrough opened the way to Rome and a straight path to victory. The Allies tried unsuccessfully to break the resistance of the German troops. The most fierce fighting took place around the hill of Monte Cassino, where one of the world's oldest and largest monasteries was located. A British historian wrote:


"The Battle of Cassino - the largest land battle in Europe - was the hardest and bloodiest of the battles between the Western Allies and the German Wehrmacht on all fronts of the Second World War. On the German side, many compared it unflatteringly with Stalingrad."


The section was attacked by the British, the Americans, the French colonial troops, the English again and the Americans. They all suffered defeat. Then, the Poles came into the fight. It was not only a military struggle but also a struggle for the honour. At Monte Cassino, the German 10th Army fought opposite Polish soldiers. It was this Army that first entered Poland on 1 September 1939. In the murderous fire, with significant losses, counting on the fact that their sacrifice could still reverse the Allies' arrangements, handing Poland over to the Soviet Union, they pushed the Germans back. The hill of Monte Cassino was taken, the road to Rome opened. Then Private Emil Czech from Bobowa turns up. On 18 May 1944, at noon, he played the most Polish of Polish melodies - the St Mary's Trumpet Call - in the ruins of the monastery. It was a sign of not only military victory. It signed victory for the spirit of an independent nation. The decision to play the bugle call was made early in the morning. A Czech was appointed to the task, as he had served in Kraków before the war. He set off for Monte Cassino around 10 a.m. He had several kilometres to cover. There was still mortar fire from the German positions. Polish and allied soldiers were still dying. The car driven by the Czech passed bodies of soldiers from almost all world armies. The last stretch was climbing over rocks. He made it precisely before noon. Under an unfurled red-and-white flag, in front of the eyes of Polish and allied soldiers, Hejnał mariacki rang out into the world.


An American in Kraków - where the story of the broken bugle call comes from


Eric Philbrook Kelly, whom we have already mentioned, fought alongside the Poles in the Polish-Bolshevik War. After the war, he fought Bolshevik propaganda in the USA and later became a scientist. In 1925, he came to Kraków to lecture at the Jagiellonian University and became interested in the history of Poland and Kraków. He asked his guide, Aniela Pruszyńska, why Hejnał mariacki stopped so abruptly. She, on the spot, had to invent a story about a trumpeter hit by a Mongolian arrow. In 1928, Kelly published the book "The Trumpeter of Krakow". Thus, one of the most beautiful Polish legends was born. It appears undoubtful as no sources have recorded this story before.


That is how the story ends. Moreover, when you have listened to the St Mary's Trumpet Call played in all four directions, think how much can be contained in five simple notes. Then climb the 239 steps to the very top of St. Mary's Church tower and think about Polish history.
 

 

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