In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of sheet music. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note with write the lyrics of the same song. In London, a woman died for an overdose of barbiturates while listening to a record of the song over and over. A girl from New York, who committed suicide by inhaling gas, left a note to play that song at her funeral. The song that connects all these deaths is the notorious “Gloomy Sunday”, nicknamed also the “Hungarian suicide song,” that has been linked to over one hundred suicides, including the man who composed it. This might all be an urban legend, but one thing is sure. “Gloomy Sunday’s” composer Rezso Seress committed suicide by throwing himself out of the window, thirty-five years after composing this melancholy melody, whose text speaks of the death of a loved one, and a drastic choice like suicide, to rejoin the deceased. The success of his greatest song may have been a contributing factor.
There are several versions of the origin of the song, composed during a dark Sunday of 1933. In the same year, the Hungarian-born Seress was a 34-year-old struggling songwriter. He lived in Paris, or perhaps in Budapest, this it is not clear. The story tells that after his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that became “Gloomy Sunday.” The music was given an equally melancholy lyric, in Hungarian, by the poet Laszlo Javor, a friend of Seress. 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 sad ballad: a lament for the death of the beloved, and a commitment to meet her again in life after death.
Whatever the case, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” the first title, didn’t make much of a success at first. The song became a success, after being recorded in English in 1936, with the text of Sam M. Lewis, and heard in the English-speaking countries after the interpretation given by Billie Holiday in 1941. Sam Lewis stayed close to the desperation of the original. This is its 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.”
But in this English version it was attempted to mitigate the sadness of the composition, adding a final verse, where the whole story simply becomes a dream:
“Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.”
Two years later, a recorded version by Pál Kálmar was connected to a lot of suicides in Hungary. The song was then banned, even if from the 1930s it is impossible to verify this fact, because Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicide rates in the world. In the early 40s the BBC prohibited the transmission of the song, considering it too shocking to the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on the radio. This ban was until 2002.
Meanwhile, during the second World War, Rezso Seress was put in a labor camp by the Nazis, and he survived. After that, he worked in the theater and the circus, where he was a trapeze artist. He later returned to songwriting, though he never had another success as big as “Gloomy Sunday.” An unconfirmed story tells that Seress tried to contact his girlfriend after the success of the song. Shortly after, he heard that she had poisoned herself, and there was a copy of the sheet music of the song nearby (in other versions of the story, she left a note with just two words: “Gloomy Sunday”). True or not, Seress did commit suicide, in 1968, jumping from the window of a Budapest apartment building. Once, Seress wrote of his conflicted emotions about his creepy song: “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.”
Almost unbelievable is another recent death related to this song (cursed?), that of the italian (bolognese) singer Norma Bruni, a famous voice of the radio in the years of the second world war. Invited to participate in a television program, in 1970, Norma Bruni sang “Triste Domenica”, Gloomy Sunday, which she had already interpreted during her years of success. When the recording of the program ended, the singer felt bad and went into a coma, from which she did not wake up again. He died on January 3, 1971, and it was the first real gloomy Sunday of the year.
In 1999, “Gloomy Sunday” was in the news again when a German film, “Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod” (A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love triangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides.