The Trumpeter of Krakow

krakowAfter a surprisingly hot day, we’ve had a big storm here in Krakow. My hotel room lies on the top (4th) floor, tucked under the eaves. Outside my window stretch the rooftops of Old Town and, not far in the distance, the famous tower of St. Mary’s Church.

The church’s fame rests on a number of things, including its spectacular wood-carved altar piece. But more influential in shaping the public character of Krakow happens to be an event that takes place in the church’s tower: the trumpeter.

Yes, the famous “Trumpeter of Krakow.” (Perhaps you’ve seen the children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow, a fictional work first published in 1928). The 13th-century legend tells of a trumpeter placed on watch to warn the besieged town of approaching Mongol troops. He spotted the enemy and began to play a tune to signal danger. What tune? Well, arguably the one still played today known as Hejnał Mariacki (St. Mary’s Dawn), although it can never be proved.

We sometimes forget that wind and percussion instruments were early warning systems in historical times. The blare of a trumpet or clang of a gong could travel long distances to alert a commander of approaching danger. In this case, the tune played by the long-ago trumpeter was cut short, says the legend, by an arrow to the poor chap’s throat.

Whether true or not, the legend’s power is such that every time, every single time, the tune is sounded from St. Mary’s tower, it is rendered in such a way as to be cut off abruptly, mid-stream, with a kind of trumpet gasp.

Now when I say “every time,” I’m not joking. Because this tune is sounded four times at the top of each hour. First the trumpeter rings the hour on the tower bells. A few seconds pass. Then, if you’re within one or two kilometers of the square, you will hear the strains of the melody.

The trumpeters today play in a specially constructed area that includes a place for a limited number of viewers (tower-climbers) and a resting area for the trumpeters. There are a number of selected musicians who share the 24 hour/365 day shifts. It is a great honor to become one of the trumpeters who opens a window on each side of the tower (north, west, south, east) and plays this tune, once in each direction!

Below, on the square, tourists and even locals stop to listen, applaud, or even cheer. Often they return the brisk wave the trumpeter gives upon completing each strain before snapping the window closed and turning to play in a new direction.

You can see in this video just how it looks from the perspective of the trumpeter. Considering how beautiful Krakow’s massive square is, especially in summer when filled with flower vendors, or during the Christmas Market when snow adds extra radiance, you can imagine that the trumpeters never tire of the spectacle.

But, of course, it is a job. Still, what a job! Can you imagine the job description? “Trumpeter needed to devote years to perpetuating an extraordinary musical and cultural tradition, one with enormous significance both to the people of Krakow and to the Polish nation. Not too many pitches required but intonation must be perfect.” And, for that matter, trumpeters approach this short tune with certain individual differences, as you will here if you sample a second video.

We’re extremely lucky on our Smithsonian Journey’s tours to stay in hotels along Floriansky Street, just off the square. That means I can hear the trumpeter from whatever room I occupy, no matter which tour. Do I tire of it? Never. If I wake in the middle of the night, and it’s the top of the hour, I hear the tune. While getting ready to go down for breakfast at 6, 7, or 8, I hear the tune. Walking around the square, I hear the tune. It’s marvelous.

The rain is really pouring now. But it’s 3 minutes until 9 p.m. and the trumpeter is up there. He’s standing at the window, warming up the mouthpiece. The blast of rain may block out this iteration but in a few hours the storm should pass. The midnight melody should be crystal clear. I’ll be eager to hear it.

Fitness and the Classics

fitnessYesterday we went up the street to inquire into membership at a fitness club. Upon entering, I initially balked at the process. To get any answers, we had to register on a computer and provide an email. Then we had to state our goals. Goals, really? I just want to know what they offer and what it costs.

But the young man who caught us at the door seemed inordinately pleasant, so I signed in. His name was Dave and he gave us “the tour.” The place wasn’t as loud as I expected, nor did it bombard us with video screens. Most people looked like normal folks and not Hollywood models, which was also encouraging.

Still, as we continued to talk to this fellow, I became more interested in his story than in the treadmills. He had just received a bachelor’s degree from a local “community” college (they’ve gotten so fancy down here, no one calls them that any more). His degree was in . . . guess what? Kinesiology? Biometrics? Nope. Try philosophy!

It then came out that he had graduated from a terrific local Lutheran high school known for its Classical program. And he will be heading in the fall to a Catholic university to pursue a Masters degree in philosophy or theology. Now, you don’t expect to be meet that person when you walk into a gym, do you?

Well, he was fit, as you’d expect. But it was his mind that really was fit. Within minutes we were discussing Great Books programs and Latin curricula. We barely got around to aquatic classes and membership programs.

I’ve been smiling ever since meeting him. Because this is what’s happening: slowly, silently, kids are emerging from this revival of learning we call the Classical education movement, whether out of private schools, magnet public schools, or homeschools. These kids have obtained what used to be a standard education, but now is considered exceptional. And they realize that everything they have mastered—from Latin to memory work to handwriting (who in the past would have called that an elite skill?)—will pay off.

Yes, they’ll have to slug through the messy intervals that youth inevitably brings: summer jobs in places like fitness centers and uncertainty as to what the next step will be in their educational advance. But they exude an eloquence and sense of peace that I find inspiring.

They know they are still the “odd-man-out” in our lowbrow, screen-driven culture. But they have a palpable confidence in their skills and the ability, en masse, to affect change. They can think. They can write and speak. And they are determined to find answers.

With the intense travel I’m doing right now (back Monday from Russia, headed Thursday to Poland), I ought to be thinking about my Krakow lectures or the 50 things I need to do before snapping my suitcase closed tomorrow.

But instead, I’m sitting in the predawn with my teacup, reflecting on this young man and our delightful meeting. I don’t know whether we’ll join this fitness center or stick with our YMCA, which lies farther away. But it doesn’t matter. I can find the same excuses not to work out in either place.

On the other hand, knowing that this gym boasts a thoughtful, literate employee who is as well versed in Thomas Merton as he is in muscle building, well, that’s pretty tempting, don’t you think?

Image: ccdoh1 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Walking through Vilnius

The cobblestones are large and uneven. They look like a randomly strewn field of stone bobble-heads. I teeter a bit, carrying bags of Lithuanian honey, chocolate, and bubbly water back to my Bed and Breakfast. Found on Expedia, this modest, squeaky clean hotel lies in the middle of Vilnius’ extensive Old Jewish Quarter.


Monument to Tsemakh Shabad* by sculptor Romualdas Kvintas

Despite the brilliant sunshine and cool breeze, jet lag washes over me. Maybe that’s why, just for an instant, I seem to see this leafy street as it looked in the 1930s, before the rounding up and exterminating of Vilnius’ Jews. Hitler’s insidious goal was highly successful here: the population of c. 57,000 Jews in this city known as Jerusalem of the North barely measured 2,000 by the end of World War II.

Vilnius’ Jewish Quarter was renown across Europe as a vibrant community—a prominent part of a cultured city dominated by Polish and Yiddish. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the past. I imagined myself as a Vilnius bobe (grandmother), carrying a heavy sack topped by a baguette that would teeter if I lost my footing. Only, I would not have lost my footing. My feet would know each crevice of the cobblestones, because this would have been my home.

At least until Hitler’s madmen set about in summer 1941 to empty this Jewish neighborhood and prepare it to become the Wilno Ghetto, designated for the incarceration of Lithuanian Jews. The goal was to reduce the number of Vilnius’s Jews to zero, a task accomplished first by mass exterminations (21,000), followed by street executions and subsequent starvation of the remaining population of Jews who were corralled into a ghetto stretching across these very streets. And yet even within the horrors of that ghetto, a cultural life was established, including a vibrant theater. Most of those who survived the Wilno Ghetto would later be deported to the death camps, particularly Majdanek. All of that took place here, where I now peacefully walk.


Vilnius University, Wilczińskiego, 1850

Vilnius has become my third favorite destination in Europe, after my beloved Weimar and the magical city of Krakow. Every political, religious, and cultural influence you can name has crossed through Vilnius. At one point, the Medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, coupled with the Kingdom of Poland, grew to be the biggest power in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea (no small accomplishment). At another time, the late 18th century, it completely disappeared off the map, victim of the brutal partitions of Poland.

In between, Lithuania has been conquered, ravaged, revitalized, and restored so often that one gets dizzy contemplating the timeline. Yet, somehow, it survived. That gene for surviving continues to matter today as the nation entertains new threats, from depopulation (as young people en masse seek better jobs elsewhere) to nervousness about Russia’s potential land-grab ambitions.

Lithuania is arguably Europe’s most religious country, with well-attended churches everywhere, primarily Catholic but also Orthodox and some Protestant. Even more than in Poland, one feels the spirit of traditional Christianity woven into daily life. Of course, on these Smithsonian tours we treat religious sites as historical and cultural landmarks, but after hours I like to wander through Vilnius and find churches open into the evening, populated with local people praying. There’s a particularly dear single-nave Gothic church known as The Chapel of Divine Mercy where candles are always burning before a famous painting of “Christ, The Divine Mercy.” It was painted in 1934 based on the descriptions of Polish St. Faustina Kowalka who had explicit visions of Christ many times in her short life.

No matter how intense our own US history and politics may seem, we have a simple story compared to the Baltic States or Eastern Europe—for that matter, compared to almost anywhere in the world. We look back at nearly 250 years of complexities and turmoil. They look back at centuries, even millennia, of cataclysmic grievances and disasters. I don’t know how one processes that much history.

Still, it all comes down to a worn shoe crossing the cobblestones, doesn’t it? It comes down to each (today peaceful) street punctuated by the voices of children in the adjacent park. It comes down to the faith we continue to have that somehow the massive problems of humanity can, and will, be solved.

My tour begins officially in two hours with a welcome dinner. Then we spend two more days in Vilnius, continue on to Riga, then Tallinn, and end up in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lilacs are in bloom. It’s not as cold as I had feared. And so far, no one’s expectations have been left unfulfilled. It’s all good.

Still, my quiet times are what I cherish. And the moment of being pulled into Vilnius’ Jewish past will stay with me for a long while. But for now, it’s time to grab my list of guests, put on a big smile, and step forward into a job that continues to amaze me.

*Tsemakh Shabad (1864-1935) was a Jewish doctor and political activist in Vilnius.

Spring Drama

Graduations, weddings, new jobs: transition is in the air.

Somehow it’s already late spring, even though a friend living in a mountain home in Colorado is still posting pictures of snowstorms on Facebook. It’s wedding season and you know what that means. Back in Bowie, dear friends are reeling with preparations for a elegant tux-and-boots wedding just a week after their daughter and her fiancé will graduate from Texas A&M. If you don’t think that’s a double-whammy, then you don’t know Texas culture.

Personally, I am fonder of autumn, when things become stiller, colors more muted, and focus shifts inside. But spring is the cherished season for most folks. There’s a lot of tossing in spring, too. Hats tossed into the air, bouquets tossed into the crowd, boxes tossed onto moving trucks, and everyone going somewhere. I won’t even mention the spring tornados down here, which add their own signature to event planning.

My Smithsonian travels are about to crank up too. I leave Monday to take a group to the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—followed by St. Petersburg, Russia. How is it that far-in-the-future dates suddenly loom before us? And, please explain this to me: how is that, after so much travel, I am still confused about what to pack?


Evgenii Fuk

Oh toss the confusion. Because first, we’re going to enjoy our Teaching the Arts Classically symposium that will take place here in two days, on Saturday May 13. Deli lunches, nametags, handouts for workshops—that’s what’s on my mind today. Plus we’re mounting an exhibit of paintings by our colleague Evgenii Fuk. His work is beautiful. I can’t find a better word to use. Just beautiful. Forests, mountains, radiant flowers, beguiling streams and trails—he paints each scene in a way that makes you want to walk into the canvas.

So it’s busy. Spring-busy. For you, for us, for all. I wonder if that’s how the trees feel like when they crowd into bloom? Of course, down here it’s lush green, but not many days ago we were driving through West Virginia headed to Virginia Beach to visit our son after the huge Cincinnati Great Homeschool Convention. Within a few hours, we drove through three seasons. The most striking scene was the area of mountains close to my father’s home place outside of Bluefield. The tops of the closely spaced mountains were still clad in winter: bare trees, grey rocks, and frosty misty. But the slopes heading down into the hollers were verdant with green and speckled with dogwood.

I’d forgotten just how extraordinary the landscape is in West Virginia. I’d forgotten about watching spring spread up the mountain. It’s a three-act drama! And yes, driving through, I did find myself singing “Country Roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home.” It’s not a tune ordinarily on my mind. But in that setting, it burst out.

May your spring burstings be of the best kind. May your festivals and celebrations, whatever they be, proceed smoothly, with joy for all. If your household is racing to finish semester activities, if you’re stepping into graduations and weddings, repurposing rooms or basements, whatever furious activity is before you, may you smile and keep your sense of humor, too. After all, the eye of the storm is a good place to find peace, I’m told. Dive in, and I’ll see you on the other side!

A Happy Thing, a Sad Thing

What a strange week. In addition to all kinds of disparate things going on that needed to be fixed, written, and otherwise dealt with, two different events have preoccupied me. The first, the happy one, takes place this week. In fact, it may be going on when you read this.

“Opera Boot Camp.” Yes, I was invited to present a three-hour “Opera 101” session for the annual Opera America National Conference. As with any industry, there are people working in opera administration (marketing, finance, publications, etc.) who never were singers, musicians, or even concentrated in the arts. So I will try to cover opera history and terminology from A to Z in one grand blast. I’m excited!

But while preparing this material, my mind has been gently embracing a person who passed two weeks ago—a man who influenced our family in the dearest way while gliding atop 8 wheels: John Mahon.


Painting by Sue Mahon

Johnny (as everyone called him) was a nationally known, top-notch professional roller skater. Every champion ribbon or trophy in the sport stood on his shelf. I could recount more details of his long career, but that misses the point. What he really did was teach, especially in the last decades of his life. Here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area skating rinks, he taught and coached not only the fanciest skating athletes, but uncounted hosts of regular kids. He gave some of them their first skating lesson. And sometimes he took an adult like me, who has had absolutely no ability or athletic accomplishment in her whole life, and taught her to skate.

Here’s how it happened in our family. For about 5 years I sat and graded papers while my daughter Helen took weekly lessons from Johnny. Helen stumbled into skating and Johnny at an old-fashioned skating rink in Mesquite, Texas. He and his radiant wife Sue (both of whom also were masters of ballroom dancing) were the king and queen of the facility.

Under Johnny’s magical, persuasive teaching, our daughter achieved a high level of proficiency. Think of it as “the Zen of Roller Skating”—that’s how he taught. He even persuaded Helen (not competition-minded) to enter a competition for the good of her own confidence. She took first place. Shortly afterwards, we moved two hours away to a ranch, and lessons with Johnny were no longer possible.

But wait, I said that Johnny taught me to skate. If you know me, you realize what a wild statement that is. I can barely walk cross a room sometimes. I crash into things. My students and friends know this well. But Johnny kept saying to me “You should learn.” And then, after all those years of sitting, he won me over.

So I bought skates and started my lessons. I was so embarrassed at first. For the longest time, I barely could stand. But in the most magical of transitions, over a few months, I learned to keep my balance and to skate around as if it were almost natural. Then I learned steps. No, I wasn’t ever going to become a competitive skater or even a skate-dancer (although Johnny had me convinced I could do the latter, if I kept with it). But I did learn crossovers, and I basic formations like the Arabesque.

Ah, the Arabesque!! It’s probably the prettiest I ever felt in my life. I had this skating outfit (don’t laugh). It was powder blue (I never wear that color), simple, and pretty. (No, there are no pictures.) It’s hard to take a picture of yourself skating and cell-phone photos hadn’t happened yet. But my mind’s eye has it captured perfectly.

Johnny made it happen. He was that kind of teacher. Certainly I couldn’t have done it without him. He taught more than skating, too. For certain, he taught my daughter many critical things about life—more than she possibly could realize at the time. He was also that kind of teacher.

We both wept at the news of his passing, although our weeping was different. In my case, I was saddest to think of the hosts of kids who would never have Johnny as their teacher. They will never experience the inimical John Mahon style (he almost always taught with a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand). My daughter wept because she understood that the potential of being in the presence of such a glorious man was no longer possible.

And at the Memorial Skate Party held for him this past Sunday, hundreds of people celebrated the life of their beloved teacher by joyful, tearful conversation and gracious skating. And yes, some made a point of carrying that coffee cup too.

Here in Texas we’ve just experienced Teacher Appreciation Week. Bouquets of flowers, candy, Starbuck gift cards, and other gifts have filled many a teacher’s desk. In most cases, we tend to think of “academic” teaching in classrooms. But let’s stop and consider the endless list of angel-teachers who instruct everything from roller-skating to woodworking to gardening to driver’s ed. The gift for teaching is the same, no matter the subject or skill.

I’m grateful I have known Johnny, and I’m grateful to have had a lifetime of teaching. Regarding the “Opera 101” session, let’s just say that I want it to be useful for these highly professional and dedicated administrators. I hope I’ll be able to strengthen their skills and enable them better to share the joy and wonder of this magnificent thing called opera.

Opera and roller-skating. I’ve put them together! But wait: Gene Kelly already did it a long time ago, matching his delectable singing and magnificent roller skating in a musical called It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Take a look, if you’ve forgotten.

R.I.P., Maestro John Mahon.

Friday Performance Pick – 120


John Mackey, Asphalt Cocktail Have you ever thought of giving a musical composition to someone as a present? John Mackey’s 2009 Asphalt Cocktail came about in just such a way. An admirer of the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble and […] Read more.

The Gifts of Travel


Quite rightly, people say, “It’s incredible what you see and do on your travels.” Especially since beginning to work as a Smithsonian speaker, it has been precisely that: incredible. The panoply of cities and countries I tour, plus the unfathomable […] Read more.

Do You Remember Me?


A man came up to me at the Greenville, South Carolina, Great Homeschool Convention, asking this dreaded question. Actually, he said it more delicately . . . something like, “You probably won’t remember me.” The fact is, thirty years have […] Read more.

Teaching the Arts Classically


Parents and tutors who meticulously research their Latin curricula, devise brilliant reading programs, and accumulate terrific materials for math and science may still find themselves floundering when it comes to teaching the Fine Arts. For reasons that include a lack […] Read more.

Music for Gaming


Each week brings its challenges, right? Last week, mine was preparing a pre-concert talk I would give for the March 7 Dallas Wind’s Video Games in Concert. I probably needn’t state that I’m not a “gamer.” Long ago, I dropped […] Read more.