An imprisoned knight learned to make music, but his singing was something else
One of the most famous legends of Prague Castle is that of the Daliborka Tower, at the end of the Golden Lane in Prague Castle. The former prison tower is named for the nobleman and knight Dalibor of Kozojedy, one of the first prisoners held there. While there, he learned to play the violin, and some say you can still hear the faint melody of his music coming from the high window on moonlit nights, if you strain to hear above the traffic and the noise of tourists.
Stories conflict over whether Dalibor was falsely accused, and likely that will never be settled. He certainly seems to have benefited from a peasant uprising. He was accused of taking part in an uprising in Ploskovice against a cruel lord named Adam Ploskovský of Drahonice during the reign of Vladislas II.
The peasants fought against Adam Ploskovský and captured him in 1496. They promised to spare his life if they were freed from servitude. They then went to Dalibor, who had a reputation for being fair and lenient, as they had to go somewhere. People simply couldn’t leave their estates and go to the big city and find a job like handing out leaflets or guiding ghost tours. There was little social mobility.
But Adam Ploskovský was not amused at losing his live property. He claimed that Dalibor was in fact behind the uprising — and this may have been the case. Adam sought to get his people back and have Dalibor punished for benefitting from his misfortunes. Dalibor was arrested for participating in the uprising and taken to the tower. In 1497, the court found him guilty of harboring the rebels and sentenced him to death. The rebels went back to their original lord.
Finding the days excruciatingly long, he feared he would lose his mind in his dark and cold cell. Justice moved slowly and he knew he was facing a long spell in the tower.
He begged a sympathetic guard to get him a musical instrument to play. The guard brought him a violin. Dalibor taught himself to play the instrument and a crowd would gather under the tower to hear his improvised serenades.
Prison food has always been bad, and the 15th century was no exception. Guards eventually gave Dalibor a sack and rope so he could beg for food during his serenades. People willingly obliged him with their leftovers and this kept him from starving to death. There is a common Czech saying, “Necessity taught Dalibor to play.”
He was decapitated by a swordsman on March 13, 1498, not far from the tower at the top of the castle stairs, Staré zámecké schody.
But there is a darker meaning behind the legend. Guards are seldom so kind to a prisoner as in this fairy tale version of the story. A “violin” is the colloquial name for a torture device: the rack. The songs people heard were his screams from torture as he “sang” his confession.
Dalibor came from a noble family, and his grandfather fought with King John of Luxembourg in the battle of Crecy in 1346.
The tale inspired Bedřich Smetana to write the opera Dalibor, which premiered May 16, 1898, some 400 years after the events took place. The opera takes some liberties with the basic story and was criticized for being derivative of both works by Wagner and Beethoven. The work was not successful until after Smetana’s death. A film version of the opera was made in 1956 by director Václav Krska. It played in competition at the 1956 Cannes film festival, but lost to the French film The Silent World.
The peasant uprising in Ploskovice was a real event, and the execution of Dalibor likely also historically true. The violin was not known as a musical instrument at the time though. The rack has been suggested as the true meaning of the violin; some other experts suggest a sort of wooden restraint for neck and hands that looks like a violin.
The Daliborka Tower was built in 1496 by architect Benedict Reid, during the reign of Vladislav Jagellonský. A fire damaged the tower in 1781, and its height was reduced during the repairs, so it no longer has a high profile. In 1883, it ceased to be a prison. The date of construction is inscribed on the tower.
The tower is at the end of the Golden Lane and next to the Black Tower, which can be seen on the Ace of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague.
Among the other famous prisoners were Count František Antonín Špork and the rebellious Czech lords after the Battle of White Mountain. During renovations, archaeologists found the skeleton of someone who died attempting to escape through a drainage tunnel.
The tower also had a dungeon below ground in addition to cells above ground.
Main image: Vanitas with violin, book, skull, and pen by N.L. Peschier. Source: Wikimedia commons