Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Hejnal Mariacki and the Soundscape of Krakow


The silver tones of the trumpet brighten the crisp morning air. The trumpeter, unseen, plays from the top of the tower of the Marian Church in the Main Square of Kraków, Poland. It is still foggy and the streets are almost empty, save for delivery trucks and the most courageous flower sellers filling their vases with water in the market. The melody is called “Hejnał Mariacki” and named after the Marian Church where it is played four times at every hour from tower windows opening to the four directions of the world. The Hejnał flows and echoes off the rooftops until it suddenly ends, as if interrupted. This abrupt end, repeated each hour, every day (96 times per day, if all repetitions are counted) is a memorial of sorts.

 A legend has it that during a Mongol invasion in the 13th century the Hejnał, played as a warning by the town’s guard, was cut short by an arrow that killed the trumpeter and the melody has been played the same way ever since. Actually, as documented by historian Jerzy Dobrzycki (Hejnał Krakowski, Kraków: PWM, 1983), there is no historical proof of that story and the first record of the melody’s existence dates back to 1392; it was initially played at dawn and dusk, to mark the opening and closing of the town’s gates. It has sounded daily since 1810, and the performances were institutionalized in 1873 when the professional Fire Brigade was created in Kraków and the firemen were given the task of playing the Hejnał. Four full‐time musicians serve on rotation around the clock, they ring the bell to denote the hour and then play the melody.


One of them, Zygmunt Rozum interviewed on ikrakow.com, said: “Life is very fast. But here for centuries traditionally the Hejnał was played every hour and will be played every hour. I am not in a rush here; exactly every hour, I play the Hejnał.”

Since 1927, the Polish Radio has broadcast the noon performance nationwide. This allows us to discuss the different meanings of this melody. The Hejnał sounds different to Kraków residents and to those who hear it on the radio. Their memories or recollections have markedly different emotional undertones. During my Polish childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, the noon performance was broadcast by Polskie Radio 1 (“Jedynka”); it is still on air daily. The four repetitions of the melody, separated by the steady steps of the trumpeter walking from window to window, appear after the 12 strokes of the bell announcing noon. The bell, the steps, the squeaking windows, and the trumpet melody are all part of the performance on air.


I regularly heard it only during summer vacations at my grandparents’ houses, since we did not listen to “Jedynka” at home, in Warsaw. I have always liked it, with its overtones of freedom and fun of the summer, with its air of mystery – What was that noise? Who’s walking? The regularity of the noon Hejnał transformed it into a part of the daily routine for children and their caretakers: hearing Hejnał meant it was time for nap after lunch. It was an aural security blanket of sorts. Played daily at the same time, it told children that the world was well‐ordered and peaceful, filling them with a sense of trust and belonging… or so I thought until I interviewed other émigrés from Poland.

Biologist and UCLA Lab Director Barbara Nowicki stated, “I never liked the Hejnał on the radio, it was interminable, boring, awful. I do not have good memories of it.” Composer Jarosław Kapuściński (Assistant Professor at Stanford University, California) wrote: “Everyone in our generation always heard the Hejnał somewhere in the background, on the radio. I did not pay much attention to it, though subconsciously it reminded me that somewhere in Kraków there lives Poland’s heart that ticks‐and‐tocks loudly (trumpet), interminably (the four repetitions to the four corners of the world extended to infinity) and – in the romantic‐Christian tradition – also heroically (I do not know how many cultures would cherish daily reminders that one of their heroes has just been killed).”


Neither the steps nor the mysterious noises of opening and closing of the windows are heard live, in the city below. During the Fifth Workshop on American Ethnicity at Jagiellonian University in May 2012, I listened to the Hejnał several times each day – in my hotel room on Floriańska Street, while walking around the Old Town, in the lecture hall at Collegium Maius of the University, and at a restaurant just beyond the part of Planty, surrounding the Old Town in a ring where the historical fortifications once were. The trumpet sounded muted, distant, with only one version of the melody heard clearly – the one directed towards me. The faint repetitions played in other directions were scattered, in bits and pieces.

I have not heard the Hejnał since leaving Poland over 20 years ago, so I was really moved by the sound on my first day in Kraków. My response to the Hejnał was echoed in its praise by others. A retired school principal from the village of Trzebieszów (Lublin region), Barbara Miszta, stated: “For me, the Hejnał is joyous, rhythmical, uplifting! When I hear its broadcast by the Polish Radio, I immediately know it is noon...and the image of the Mariacki Tower in Kraków comes to mind.”


Similarly positive were Kraków residents, musicians Mariusz and Łucja Czarnecki. An accomplished soprano, teaching at the Kraków Academy of Music, Ms. Czarnecki stated: “Hejnał Mariacki, played every hour by a trumpeter to the four corners of the world, played in the heart of Kraków, the city of the kings, from its highest church tower, where people with upturned faces look high up, above the clouds, feeling in these sounds their Polishness, the Slavic nature of their souls, a joy that overflows in their hearts! For foreigners it is also an exceptional moment. While admiring the Main Square (Rynek Główny) they enjoy listening to the Hejnał from the Mariacki Tower, and they wave to greet the trumpeter. Delighted with the charms of Kraków they listen with a smile on their faces, thinking about their loved ones, left far away… The sounds of Hejnał have a magic power and transport everyone into a metaphysical trance.”


Quite similar is the tone of the reflections of Mariusz Czarnecki, a percussionist and a true Cracovian. His comments are rooted in the aural landscape where the melody is heard day and night: “Of course, I like the Hejnał! If you live in the town’s center it defines time, it obviously is also a tourist attraction. But I remember these magic moments in the fall when the square is nearly empty, foggy, and above it all there soars the Hejnał with the hourly chimes of the church bells. Then you feel the magic of Kraków at its best – the Hejnał defines time and simultaneously floats above it. There are many magical places in Kraków at night, where the Hejnał takes you into another dimension of time. It is too loud here during the day, when the city is solely a tourist attraction, but in the early hours of the morning it is something else. You will find echoes of it in the Young Poland literature, even in Wyspiański’s The Wedding – the magic Golden Horn… The heart of Kraków, at night, at dawn, with the mist and the Hejnał – this is pure genius.”


Conclusion? Live music = pure genius. Radio broadcast = not so much… I should add that the Polish Radio is planning to shorten the broadcast to two repetitions of the Hejnał and that Polish Americans may remember the melody and its legend from a tale by Eric P. Kelly, The Trumpeter of Kraków (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928).


 Maja Trochimczyk

 Reprinted from PAHA Newsletter Vol. 69 no. 2, October 2012.
All interviews were conducted by email, August 2012.

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