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Oct 10 2014

The Trumpeter of Krakow

The morning after I arrived in Krakow, I decided to do one of the free walking tours, as a way of familarising myself with what would be my nearest city in Poland.  Just as the tour was about to begin at 10am, I heard the sound of a trumpet.  I wondered where it was coming from, but didn’t worry to much as the tour had started.  As it was coming up to 11am, we stopped at one side of St Mary’s Church, waiting to hear the tune again.  I couldn’t understand why until we saw the trumpeter.  As the title of this post suggests, it is the trumpeter of Krakow that is this week’s Foto Friday.

As you can see, I caught him on camera.  It wasn’t easy because he was so high up.  Thankfully, I have a great zoom on my camera and I managed to keep my camera still for long enough to capture a clear shot.

So, what’s it all about?  Well, no one really knows.  The Hejnał, as it’s referred to, seems to be an unfinished piece of music.  You have to listen to it to understand why it sounds unfinished.  As you hear the tune, it stops abruptly when it sounds as if it should continue.

Apparently, the earliest written record of this dates back to the late 14th century.  The origin of the word hejnał comes from the Hungarian word for dawn.  So, it seems that it might have been used to signal the opening and closing of the city gates, twice a day, at dawn and dusk.  The melody is played in all four directions, even today, which roughly corresponds to the four main gates that used to stand.

That doesn’t explain why the trumpet call is unfinished though.  There are a couple of theories.  The first is that there were other trumpeters around the city and they shared the tune.  The one who started in the tower of the church, might have stopped to let another continue and finish the tune to signify that one of the gates had just opened or closed.

Another theory relates to the invasion of the Mongol troops.  As they closed in on Krakow, the trumpter, who was in the process of alerting everyone, was struck in the throat by an arrow before he had time to finish the tune.  This would be a more plausible explanation if the tower wasn’t so high and the aperture so small.  I doubt anyone, however good their aim, could manage that.  I’m not an expert though, so I could be wrong.  The first version of this legend was written down by an American, who was teaching at a university in Krakow, and not by a Polish person, as you might expect.  Eric P Kelly was his name and he had to rely on French-speaking friends to translate for him since he couldn’t speak Polish that well.  As you can imagine, there was some room for error and it’s possible that he got the story wrong along the way.  It doesn’t really matter though because this has become a Polish Iegend that continues to be passed down through the generations.

If you’re interested in hearing what has become a popular tourist attraction, just stand by St Mary’s Church in Krakow on the hour, at any hour, and you will hear the unfinished melody.  The trumpter plays the tune from all four windows, one at a time.  When I was there, the trumpter opened the window, played the tune, and waved to us before closing the window.  They are quite the celebrity, it seems.  This is free and only takes a few minutes, so it’s worth stopping to hear it because the trumpeter of Krakow is a popular Polish legend and it’s funny to listen to the unfinished melody, just because it stops so abruptly.


St Mary’s Church is in the Old Town of Krakow.

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 Have you been to Krakow and heard the lone trumpeter play the unfinished melody?

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