I have only recently found out that "Gloomy Sunday" (that's cover by Heather Nova is in my top 50 favourite songs of all time) was in fact written and composed by two Hungarians. I couldn't believe this escaped my attention before. Although I should have guessed, with the country's relation to depression and suicide.
The song - "Szomorú Vasárnap" in Hungarian - is a song written by the self-taught pianist and composer Rezső Seress in 1933. According to urban legend, it inspired hundreds of suicides. According to record publicists when the song was first marketed in America, it became known as the "Hungarian suicide song".
About the lyricist: It was in springtime 1933 that the police reporter of Budapest lithographic "Eight-o'clock Morning News", László Jávor, a twenty-six year old fellow, all filled with sorrow and dispair, was deadly fallen in love - to somebody else's wife. At their last furtive date he was to learn that, from now on, his loved one shall disappear out of his life. So he asked her being allowed to take a death mask from her face - as an item of remembrance - and to make a plaster cast of her soft, kitten-paw-like little hands, which so tenderly "velvet-sweet" would have caressed him.
If we can believe that legend, Mr. Jávor was inspired by these objects of love and favour to write the infamous verses with the title "Gloomy Sunday".
In any case, the work was finished, set to music, and already in November the whole country was burning in "Gloomy Sunday" fever. In a restaurant in Józsefváros district, the "primás" (band leader) was threatened by a guest with shooting himself with his revolver, if he didn't play this melody, then, calmed down by the song's magic power, hanging over the table he would talk about his grief.
In middle-class parlors, respectable ladies would wetten their handkerchiefs with tears given rise by the deadly sorrow emanating from scratching phonographs. Ordinary little maids would have been sobbing while cleaning the silverware next to the radio.
To top it all, a regular suicide madness broke out. It began with Esther Kish who was drinking suds, but before doing this, she carefully put "Gloomy Sunday's" music on her pillow. This song became a poor provincial chief district judge's fate, whose sensitive heart did its last beat while he was listening to the chanson, moreover László Ledig's, a twenty-three year old bank employee, who, also on a sunday, sitting on a cab's back seat, shot himself through his heart, after having passed the night awake with weeping beside the infamous song.
In February of 1936, Budapest Police were investigating the suicide of a local shoemaker, József Keller. The investigation showed that Keller had left a suicide note in which he quoted the lyrics of a recent popular song. The song was "Gloomy Sunday".
The fact that a man chose to quote the lyrics of a little-known song may not seem very strange. However, the fact that over the years, this song has been directly associated with the deaths of over 100 people is quite strange indeed.
Following the event described above, seventeen additional people took their own lives. In each case, "Gloomy Sunday" was closely connected with the circumstances surrounding the suicide.
Among those included are two people who shot themselves while listening to a gypsy band playing the tune. Several others drowned themselves in the Danube while clutching the sheet music of "Gloomy Sunday". One gentleman reportedly walked out of a nightclub and blew his brains out after having requested the band to play "The Suicide Song".
Since Goethe's "Werther", nobody was to bring suicide into fashion again like this in whole Europe. No wonder that Mr. Jávor - fairly having gotten wind of this aftermath - commented the fatal success to the "Pesti Napló" (Pest Journal) reporter like this: "I'm now tied to it like a gravedigger to the shovel." This decadent comparison surely hit the point! Because "Gloomy Sunday" was associated with lots of funeral contents; Veronal, Luminal, heart attack, hanging rope.
The adverse effect of "Gloomy Sunday" was becoming so great that the Budapest Police thought it best to ban the song. However, the suppression of "Gloomy Sunday" was not restricted to Budapest, nor was its seemingly evil effects. In Berlin, a young shopkeeper hung herself. Beneath her feet lay a copy of "Gloomy Sunday".
Many claim that broken romances are the true causes of these suicides. However, this is debatable. For instance, one man jumped to his death from a seventh story window followed by the wailing strains of "Gloomy Sunday". He was over 80 years old! In contrast to this, a 14 year old girl drowned herself while clutching a copy of "The Suicide Song".
Perhaps the strongest of all was the case of an errand boy in Rome, who, having heard a beggar humming the tune, parked his cycle, walked over to the beggar, gave him all his money, and then sought his death in the waters beneath a nearby bridge.
As the death toll climbed, the B.B.C. felt it necesssary to suppress the song, and the U.S. network quickly followed suit. A French station even brought in psychic experts to study the effects of "Gloomy Sunday" but had no effect on the ever climbing death rate.
The composer, Rezsô Seress, was as bewildered as the rest of the world. Although he wrote the song on the breakup of his own romance, he never dreamed of the results which would follow. However, as fate would have it, not even Seress could escape the song's strange effects.
At first he had a difficult time getting someone to publish the song. Quite frankly, no one would have anything to do with it. As one publisher stated, "It is not that the song is sad, there is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don't think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that."
However, time passed and Seress finally got his song published. Within the week "Gloomy Sunday" became a best seller, Seress contacted his ex-lover and made plans for a reunion. The next day the girl took her life through the use of poison. By her side was a piece of paper containing two words: "Gloomy Sunday".
When questioned as to just what he had in mind when he wrote the song, Seress replied, "I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man. This fatal fame hurts me. I cried all of the disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it."
As the months went by and the excitement died down, the B.B.C. agreed to release "Gloomy Sunday", but only as an instrumental. This version was later made into a record. A London policemen heard this particular arrangement being repeatedly and endlessly played in a nearby apartment. He considered this to be worthy of investigation. Upon entering the apartment, he found an automatic phonograph playing and replaying the tune. Next to it was a woman, dead from an overdose of barbiturates. It was this incident which prompted the B.B.C. to reimpose its ban on the song. To this day it has not been lifted.
"Gloomy Sunday" was introduced to the U.S. market in 1936. However, getting it recorded was no easy matter. Bob Allen and members of the Hal Kemp band were the first to record "Gloomy Sunday" in the U.S. They were noticeably affected while making the record. It took twenty-one takes to turn out a record good enough to publish. Few people who have ever listened to the melody and lyrics fail to confess that it has a horribly depressing effect.
In New York, a pretty typist gassed herself leaving a request that "Gloomy Sunday" should be played at her funeral.
Finally, with sixty-nine years of age and nothing more expecting from life, the composer, Seress met his fate that, at another time, he had been so much scared of - jumping out of the window of his apartment on the fourth floor, flying over to eternity the way he had announced thirty years back in his gloomy melody of "Szomorú Vasárnap".
So, whoa. I realize half of it is only an urban legend. But knowing Hungary, it could very well be true. And let me tell you, the English lyrics does absolutely no justice to the original, Hungarian one. Here is the lyrics translated by Diamanda Galas:
I waited and waited
With flowers in my arms
All the dream has created
I waited 'til dreams,
Like my heart, were all broken
The flowers were all dead
And the words were unspoken
The grief that I know
Was beyond all consoling
The beat of my heart
Was a bell that was tolling
Saddest of Sundays
Then came a Sunday
When you came to find me
They bore me to church
And I left you behind me
My eyes could not see
What I wanted to love me
The earth and the flowers
Are forever above me
The bell tolled for me
And the wind whispered "Never!"
But you I have loved
And I'll bless you forever
Last of all Sundays
So where has this come from?
I bought The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe the other day in a second-hand bookshop. The saleslady entertained me with the story, that surrounded the book. And then she talked about "Szomorú Vasárnap".
And I realized how many songs on my playlist are about suicide, or have a suicidal mood. And I was thinking, I had never attempted to do any harm in myself, even though I was listening to these songs constantly. So, what brings someone to off himself under a song influence? Is a song just the final push, just a tiny blow for the person standing at the edge of a cliff? Is a song enough to throw you off balance, and then you just fall and fall and fall... As far as I can see, those suicidal songs that were inspiried by personal experience means the most 'danger' to unhealthy people. Because they are more genuine? Or as Seress said others with feelings like (the composer) have found their own hurt in it.
I don't know. A depressing songs always have the exact opposite effect on me. Not the music makes me depressed, but the music brings back the "life" in me whenever I'm depressed.
Here are few of these songs from my PC.
- Here is the instrumental version - I believe the tune in itself is more heartbreaking than with lyrics. You could literally feel the composer's pain.
- With lyrics, performed by Gábor Maros.
- In English, performed by Heather Nova.