Update: A26560361 Gloomy Sunday - Music to Die for?

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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', English Translation.

Most people are affected by music1. It plays on our emotions, making us happy, reminiscent, maybe even sad. But can a piece of music kill? A persistent urban legend thinks this one can. Since this lugubrious Hungarian pop song was written in 1933, sensation-mongering newspeople (and, possibly, enterprising record producers) have tried to link 'Gloomy Sunday'/'Szomorú vasárnap' by Hungarian composer Rezsö Seress to any number of suicides.

Rezsö Seress and the 'Hungarian Suicide Song'

Rezsö Seress (1899-1968) was a Hungarian Jewish musician and trapeze artist. His birth name was Rudolf Spitzer. After a work-related accident in the trapeze business, Seress attended acting school and taught himself piano. By the early 1930s, he was a hopeful composer. Though popular with Budapest audiences, he was chronically poor, and looking for a hit.

Seress composed 'Gloomy Sunday' in 1933. Lyrics were later provided by fellow Hungarian László Jávor, and it was recorded by Hungarian singer Pál Kalmár. In the United States, Sam Lewis wrote some English lyrics for a better-known version, which was recorded by Hal Kemp in 19362, and in the same year by Paul Robeson. The song gained further popularity in the English-speaking world through a 1941 recording by Billie Holiday. Seress became moderately successful, and even married a glamorous local divorcee.

Just how 'Gloomy Sunday' got its reputation as 'the Hungarian suicide song' is not clear. During the Great Depression, many people were broke, desperate, and...depressed. Hungarians have a reputation for being gloomy. The country also had a higher than average suicide rate. An urban legend sprang up around the song: people were found dead of suicide, clutching copies of the sheet music, or expired in their rooms with 'that song' on their turntables. Someone had jumped off a bridge into the Danube while a street musician played the cursed tune...the story gained traction3. During the Second World War, the BBC banned the Billie Holiday version of the song as bad for morale, but permitted instrumental renderings. (The ban wasn't lifted until 2002.)

As for the song itself, it is written in E Flat minor and consists principally of eighth-note triplets with a few bars of Chopin's Funeral March cleverly woven into the latter part of the composition.

– 'The Story of Gloomy Sunday', Popular Songs, v2, no4, p32

True, the tune is quintessentially Balkan, 1930s-style melodramatic, and melancholy, with a hint of exaggerated pathos about it. Depending on your mood, it might make you laugh or cry. But there is no more evidence for the urban legend that the song contributed to suicides than that reading Goethe's 'Werther' novel does, or that listening to Black Sabbath will turn you into a Satanist. The saddest thing about 'Gloomy Sunday' is that its composer never made much money from it, and had to keep playing in what was reputed to be the coldest restaurant in Budapest, with one pot-bellied stove for heating. And that was before the Nazis showed up and made his life worse.

Nazis, Soviets, and Suicide

During the occupation, Rezsö Seress was a forced labourer in the Ukraine. His mother died in the camp. He himself survived with the help of German officers who appreciated his musical talent and fame as the composer of the hit song. After the war, things didn't get better: the communist regime blacklisted him because they suspected him of supporting the Hungarian right wing. To eke out a living, he played regularly at the Kispipa bar and restaurant on Akcáfa Street in Budapest, a hangout for bohemian artists and other social outsiders..

It isn't clear whether 'Gloomy Sunday' ever killed anyone who listened to it, but hard times and depression drove Rezsö Seress to suicide in 1968. According to his neighbour, Seress, very depressed, took to playing the song over and over on his piano. One day, he plunged from his balcony. When the jump failed to kill him, he choked himself to death with a wire in his hospital bed. The true victim of the 'Hungarian suicide song' was its own composer.

For More Information

Snopes.com rules the 'Gloomy Sunday' legend as 'undetermined'.

Rezsö Seress also wrote cheerful songs, such as 'Én úgy szeretek részeg lenni', or 'I Love Being So Drunk'.

The 1999 German/Hungarian film Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (A Song of Love and Death) tells a fanciful story of love, war, and revenge built around the song 'Gloomy Sunday' and is mostly set in a much more gemütlich restaurant called Szabó's.

A scientific paper has actually been published in a medical journal (Omega) on the subject of 'Gloomy Sunday'. The article, titled ' Gloomy Sunday: did the "Hungarian suicide song" really create a suicide epidemic?', can be read in abstract form here. The researchers' dry conclusion is, ' Further research is needed on art forms, such as feature films, paintings, novels, and music that portray suicides in order to identify the conditions under which the triggering of suicides occurs.'

There is a miniature statue of Rezsö Seress outside the Kispipa restaurant in Budapest. It was created and placed by 'guerilla sculptor' Mihály Kolodko.

The Kispipa has reopened as a craft-beer bar. Hungarian musicians play tributes to Rezsö Seress, and introduce his music to a new generation.

1There is a neurological condition known as 'amusia', in which people cannot process music, and presumably are immune to emotional manipulation.2A 1936 magazine called Popular Songs claimed of Kemp's version, 'Twenty-two master waxes were ruined before his orchestra could put itself into a sufficiently funereal mood. Rob Allen, Kemp's vocalist, claims to have lost a week's sleep after making the record.' Maybe the song's reputation spread mostly among depressed musicians? The modern listener may feel a different emotion when listening to that version. (Mainly that it could use less cowbell.)3Another claim by Popular Songs in 1936 was that a notice appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the effect that 'Russ Smith has spread terror around WCAE by threatening to play a special arrangement of 'Gloomy Sunday'.' A congressman was quoted as saying, 'This thing might have terrible consequences,' and as suggesting a possible ban.

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