Gloomy Sunday, Hungarian Suicide Song

Gloomy Sunday - Rezso Seress
The Story: 

At the point of happiness or depression, we surely would like to accompany ourselves with music. Music serves us right in each moment of everyday. As defined in Webster, music is the art of combining sounds or sequences of notes into harmonious patterns pleasing to the ear and satisfying to the emotions. Reading the definition itself, music has the power of influence. It has been playing important roles in history until today – from being an icon of unity to source of entertainment or foundation of pride and honor as it gives distinction to people and countries. Even, music could end a life or hundreds. Gloomy Sunday is a great example.

Let’s get to know this controversial music – its composer, origin and more.

In 1933, a Hungarian named Rezso Seress composed the song “Gloomy Sunday”. Rezso is a pianist and composer who made music to the poem written by Laszlo Javor. “Szomorú vasárnap” is the original title of both the poem and the music. The song tells about the grief of a man about the ill-timed bereavement of a lover. The song describes suicidal contemplation also.

The “Gloomy Sunday” was considered as the “Hungarian suicide song.” The name calling of the song originated in United States on knowing that the composer Rezso Seress himself committed suicide. In 1968, Rezso jumped from his apartment to his death days shortly after he celebrated his 69th birthday. The reason for his suicidal is accurately unsure yet but urban legends said that he was depressed knowing that his song was labeled as a funeral chant among people and blamed for washing out hundred lives during 1930’s specifically in Hungary. Rezso Seress claimed that the song increased his unhappiness knowing that he’ll never be able to write such a hit again.

The song has had many recorded versions of different singers from different countries. To the record, Billie Holiday had scored high in making his own version of the song in 1941 making him the most recognized singer of the song. However, his version was banned by BBC since it has peaked during World War II fearing that this might have affected depressed listeners and eventually increased death rates, especially suicidal.

Billy Mackenzie, a vocalist of the band “The Associates” from Scotland, recorded a cover of Billie Holiday’s version in 1982. Yet, Mackenzie also committed suicide. He was found dead in Dundee, near his father’s house.

Famous recorded versions of the song were written in English. In 1935, Desmond Carter’s cover was used in Paul Robeson recording and a few others. However, the most common was Billie Holiday’s recording. Sam Lewis made its lyrics who added a third verse in this 1941 recording and explaining that the singer has dreamt only about the bereavement of her lover.

Some accounts have him living in Paris, others Budapest. The story goes that after his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that became “Gloomy Sunday.” A minor-key ribbon of blue smoke, the tune was given an equally melancholy lyric - in Hungarian - by Seress’s friend, the poet Laszlo Javor. Some reports claim it was Javor’s girlfriend who left him, inspiring the song as a poem first. Others say that Seress wrote his own lyric, about war and apocalypse, then Javor later changed it to a heartbreak ballad.

Whatever the case, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” as it was titled, didn’t make much of a splash at first. But two years later, a recorded version by Pál Kálmar was connected to a rash of suicides in Hungary. The song was then allegedly banned. Short of learning Hungarian and trawling through Budapest newspapers from the 1930s, it is impossible to verify any of this (Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicide rates in the world - approximately 46 out of every 100,000 people take their own lives there every year).

But it certainly makes for a juicy story. And it did at the time, too, because music publishers from America and England soon came calling.

Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sam M. Lewis and British theater lyricist Desmond Carter each wrote an English translation of the song. It was Lewis's version, recorded in 1936 by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, that caught on.

Sam Lewis, best known for chirpy hits such as “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down And Write Myself A Letter,” stayed close to the bitter despair of the original. Here’s his second verse:

“Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know
Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you.”

Lewis did make one concession to commerciality by tacking on a third verse that beamed a ray of light into the tune’s darkness. It began:

“Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.”

In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the definitive version of “Gloomy Sunday.” Having the hard-living Lady Day associated with the song certainly upped the tragedy ante.

Despite conflicting reports, the song was never officially banned in the U.S., though it was in England. In the early ‘40s, the BBC deemed the song “too upsetting” for the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on the radio.

In 1984, “Gloomy Sunday” was in the news again, by association, when Ozzy Osbourne was taken to court by the parents of a teen who shot himself while listening to the rocker’s song “Suicide Solution.” In 1999, a German film, Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday - A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love triangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides. And in recent years, the song has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Heather Nova.