Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Hungarian suicide song – Gloomy Sunday

In 1933 the Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and poet László Jávor wrote the song Vége a világnak (‘End of the world’) which had the alternate title Szomorú vasárnap (‘Sad Sunday’).  The song gained a very special reputation: that dozens of people, on hearing it, had committed suicide.

The original version portrayed the image of a desolate and destroyed landscape; Javor changed the theme to be one of a man lamenting his dead lover.  He considers that if they will only be reunited again in death, then perhaps he shall commit suicide:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

[Literal translation from Phespirit] A year or so later the song was first recorded in English by Paul Robeson and then, more famously, by Billie Holiday.  The lyrics they used made the suicide theme clearer, although Holiday’s had to add an extra verse to say that the whole thing was a dream.  Suicide was a difficult subject to discuss in a popular song, after all:

Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

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

Gloomy Sunday

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you
Gloomy Sunday

(Here’s a recording of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung by Paul Whiteman for your listening pleasure – if you dare!)

And then the stories began, stories of dozens of people killing themselves after hearing this song, leaving behind the lyrics in suicide notes.

In February of 1936, Budapest Police were investigating the suicide of a local shoemaker, Joseph 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.


The stories were, in fact, all bunkum and just part of a promotional campaign for the song (an early example of viral marketing).  And they did grow steadily stranger and less plausible – perhaps the ultimate being “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”.

It is true, though, that the song was banned by several radio stations, including the BBC who only allowed it on their playlists again in this century.  But it was banned by the BBC largely because of their opinions on the kind of hearty fare that the listening public should get during the war.  It is also true that the composer, Rezső Seress, committed suicide, but that was in 1968 and was likely from depression after never having managed to write another successful song in the 35 years since penning ‘Gloomy Sunday’.

I do wonder if this story might have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s skit of the weaponized joke.  Could a cursedly sad song fall into the hands of the army, would they refine it?  And what would happen if Lord Haw-Haw was broadcasting it into Britain during the Blitz?

Or what about a bizarre assassination attempt: a diabolical scheme to kill the king by a visiting bard singing the cursed song in his very hall?  Or at a Royal Command Performance at Albert Hall - a famous singer has been brainwashed by Hugo Drax and James Bond must stop his next plan for revenge on Great Britain.  Was that what really happened to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre?

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