Don’t shoot the messenger – the poor old Trumpet player always gets it “in the neck”!

Today’s blog gives a brief insight to the curious use of the Trumpet, both in conveying important messages to others and how it’s use has become iconic and symbolic for one particular European City.

In 2008, I was fortunate enough to be the Musical Director for the Greater Gwent Youth Brass Band’s Tour of  Poland. This was a pretty ambitious project, involving not only the Brass Band, but also the County Symphony Orchestra and a Chamber Choir. This amounted to a travelling entourage of around 150 students and staff!

The Ensembles performed at a variety of locations in Poland including the Church in Zakopane, nestled in the beautiful Tatras mountain region, which was built as a gesture of thanks to God, for saving the life of Pope John Paul II after the assassination attempt in 1981.The Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Zakopane OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In addition, our Tour took us to the beautiful City of Kraków and the amazing Church of St. Catherine’s, with its high ceilings and ornate decor, especially the breath-taking Altar and Rood Screen. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

St. Catherine’s Church, Kraków

Whilst in Kraków one day, I was walking across the main square in the City, when I saw a group of tourists gathered and looking up in the air at something. Being of a somewhat nosey, sorry, curious disposition I also stopped to see what was causing so much interest. Everyone seemed to be looking at a Church Tower (which I later learned was Saint Mary’s Church. Nothing much seemed to be happening and people were regularly checking their watches, so having given up hope of anything exciting happening, I was about to walk off, when one of the group shouted out and pointed at one of the windows in the Tower.

In the Tower window high above, stood a figure who looked down at the ever-increasing throng and gave a quick wave. What happened next was totally unexpected however. He suddenly went out of sight only for a trumpet bell to suddenly appear out of the window and the sounds of a very lyrical but simple melody were heard wafting over the square. It was quite mesmerizing and continued for nearly a minute, only to stop abruptly mid-phrase! Most of the curious audience (including myself) were highly baffled by all this, but before we could even question what we had just witnessed, the whole process was repeated but this time, from another window from the Tower. In fact, this occurred on four separate occasions, in quick succession, each time with the melody ending abruptly at the same musical point (or non-musical place if you were looking for a logical ending to the tune, as I was!).

Had I done my homework prior to going to Kraków however, or consulted a tourist guide-book, I would have learned that this tradition has been in existence for centuries, with a variety of stories, legends and myths regarding it’s origin and meaning.

First of all though, let’s deal with hard facts. The melody or “call” is known as Hejnał Mariacki (pronounced “Hey-now Mahr-yahts-kee”), meaning “St. Mary’s Dawn”; also called the Kraków Anthem). This is a traditional, five-note Polish melody which is played every hour on the hour, 365 days a year. Such is it’s importance in Polish culture, the mid-day performance is broadcast via radio to all of Poland and the world.  In fact, 71 years ago this week, the  Hejnał was played by a bugler from the Polish Army to announce the Polish victory in the Battle of Monte Cassino on 18 May 1944. It is unclear who wrote it, but Civic records actually refer to it officially as far back as 1392 and was originally played by the town guard to warn of fires or signal the end of a guard watch. Since the 19th century however, the Hejnał has been performed by active members of the fire brigade, who currently provide at least four different buglers serving in shifts at the tower. Despite its apparent monotony, this duty is carried out with great pride and precision by each trumpeter and is regarded as a hugely prestigious task, with some players having given 30+ years continuous service performing it.

Now for the conjecture bit. I will let you do your own research and decide which you believe is the most credible version, however some state the tune is performed in four different directions in honour of the King of Poland, the Mayor and the Bishop, the citizens of Kraków and finally the peasants/visitors Kraków. My favourite version however, is that during the first Mongol invasion of Poland (yes they got around a bit those guys!) of 1241, troops led by one of Genghis Khan’s Generals – General Subutai – were attacking the City and a sentry on a tower of St Mary’s Church sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnał. Thanks to the sentry’s vigilance, the gates were closed before the invaders were able to ambush the city. The poor trumpeter, however, was shot in the throat and did not complete the anthem, hence the reason for the abrupt ending to each performance!

A more recent explanation for the sudden ending may stem from the sudden death of the performer, whilst on duty at midnight on 7 July 1901. Whichever story you might wish to believe, the Trumpet has shown its versatility once again, in not only bringing musical pleasure to so many, but also in being a method of communication, an early warning system and a very potent tourist attraction. Who says live music is for the elite? Hejnał mariacki played by a trumpeter from the tower of St. Mary’s Church (Kościół Mariacki) in Kraków.

P.S. – When the postman delivers the Gas bill next time, don’t shoot the messenger, he’s only doing his job!

St. Mary’s Church in Kraków. The Hejnał is performed 4 times on the hour every hour from the Tower on the left. HELLOMOTO

If you require a Bugler or Trumpeter for an event, please visit Andrew Jones (Music for You)

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