Gloomy Sunday - Music to Die for? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Gloomy Sunday - Music to Die for?

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Little white flowers won't wait for 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, English Version.

We are all affected by music. It plays on our emotions, making us happy, reminiscent, maybe even sad. But can a piece of music kill? According to urban myth, this one can. Since it was written in 1933, 'Gloomy Sunday' by Hungarian composer Rezso Seress, has been linked to the deaths of over 100 people.

The Song

Seress allegedly wrote the piece of music on a gloomy Sunday whilst very low after breaking up with his latest lover. He had difficulty in getting the piece published though, as it was considered too melancholy, with one publisher saying:

'It's not that the song is sad, there is sort of a terrible compelling despair about it, I don't think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that.'

The piece was eventually accepted, however, and released in 1936, with lyrics written by fellow Hungarian Laszlo Javor. Much later, Sam Lewis wrote some English lyrics for a better-known version, made popular by Billie Holiday. Javor and Seress claimed the original Hungarian lyrics were written about the war at the time and not about lost love.

During the week that 'Gloomy Sunday' hit the bestsellers' list, Seress contacted his ex-lover with the intention of getting back together with her. The following day she poisoned herself, and when her body was found, by her feet was a note containing just two words... 'Gloomy Sunday'.

The song very soon became nicknamed by the public as 'The Suicide Song', owing to the number of people who took their lives, seemingly due to its influence. There is some belief, though, that this tag may have been given by the record company, in an attempt to fuel publicity and therefore sales. Among those supposedly adversely affected by the song were two young men, who shot themselves whilst listening to a gyspy band play the tune, and a group of people who drowned themselves, allegedly clutching the sheet music. The Budapest police thought it best to ban the song to prevent hysteria, but by this point, the song's reputedly evil influence had already spread, with deaths occurring in other parts of the world being connected with the song, however tenuously.

Perhaps the strangest case is that of a young errand boy in Rome, Italy, who allegedly passed by a beggar who was humming the tune. He parked his cycle, gave the beggar all of his money and then jumped to his death from a nearby bridge. It is worth noting that we cannot know the mental state of these people prior to the incidents, and they may well have been suicidal for some time as opposed to led by a piece of music. It is also worth noting that Hungary had at the time one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, with much of this being attributed to war and the general depressive mood of the time.

The Aftermath

With the worldwide death-toll associated with the song rapidly climbing, the BBC felt it necessary to try to suppress the song in the UK1, with US stations quickly following suit. The French tried psychic investigation into the song and its alleged effects on its listeners, but all this had seemingly no effect on 'Gloomy Sunday' and its associated death rate.

As time passed and interest died down, the BBC agreed to the release of an instrumental version of the song as a record. One London policeman on his beat reportedly heard this being played over and over on repeat in a flat. On investigation, he found a woman's body lying near the record player. She had died of an overdose of barbiturates.

Meanwhile in the USA, Bob Allen and the Hal Kemp Band released their own version of 'Gloomy Sunday'. It has since been covered by Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson, Bjork and Louis Armstrong, among others. Versions have been released in many languages including Swedish, Chinese, Japanese and even Esperanto.

Today, in a small restaurant in Budapest, Kis Pipa, where Reszo Seress played himself, a pianist can still be heard on occasion to play the original 'Gloomy Sunday'.

It seems few people have been able to listen to the music and lyrics of 'Gloomy Sunday' without feeling its innate despair to some extent. Even Seress himself was not immune. He took his own life in 1968 at the age of 70, by jumping from a window.

1The ban was lifted in 2002, according to the BBC trivia show, QI.

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