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The Gloomiest Sunday

Wednesday, March 5, 2008
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Still alive? Well, maybe it won’t work for you if you don’t speak Hungarian. Try the English version.

Did we all make it through unscathed? That’s good. Some were not so lucky; this from the Feb. 2, 1936 edition of the Syracuse Herald:

Budapest Combats “Gloomy Sunday” after 18 Suicides

Budapest police have branded the song “Gloomy Sunday” public menace No. 1 and have asked all musicians and orchestras to cooperate in suppressing it, dispatches said today.

To its gloomy strains, the police attribute 18 suicides. It was the 18th suicide — which moved police to action — when Joseph Keller, a shoemaker, killed himself and in a note to police asked them to put on his grave 100 of the roses mentioned in the song.

Men, women and children are among the victims. Two people shot themselves while gypsies played the melancholy notes on violins. Some killed themselves while listeninig to it on gramophone records in their homes. Two housemaids cut their employers’ linens and paintings and then killed themselves after hearing the song drifting up into the servant’s hall from dinner parties.

Pretty dramatic, but is it true? Snopes has listed these claims as ‘undetermined.’

Wikipedia actually has two conflicting versions of how this song, Szomorú Vasárnap in the Hungarian, came to be. The first comes from the page for Gloomy Sunday itself and states that both the music and lyrics were written by Rezső Seress (pictured), with Seress’s original lyrics of “crushing hopelessness and bitter despair” being later replaced by the more “melancholic” lyrics of Hungarian poet László Jávor. Seress’s Wiki page, however, states that “the song was originally written when writer László Jávor broke up with his girlfriend and asked Seress to compose a song for Jávor’s Hungarian text.” I looked at some other articles and they all seem to waver back and forth, so who knows; although, it seems to be that the last stanza of the song, the one about “I was only dreaming,” was added later (maybe this is the Javor stuff) to try and alleviate the mood of complete and utter despair.

Seress, a Jewish(?) midget (his original name was ‘Spitzer’), was put in ‘forced labour’ during the Holocaust (it doesn’t specify exactly what that was — whether a concentration camp or some other type of camp), though he managed to survive. His mother, unfortunately, was not so lucky. Seress continued to suffer a life of depression, and, despite making millions off the popularity of the song, committed suicide himself by jumping from an eighth-storey window in 1968 (seems to have been a Thursday, though).

If all this doesn’t make this song interesting enough, there’s also the fact that it’s been covered about 80 million times. The list includes Sarah Vaughan, Elvis Costello (which is no surprise — I think he’s covered pretty much all of the ‘standards’), Sinéad O’Connor, Sarah McLachlin, Björk (whom I love, yet strangely did not like her take on this one — I don’t think her voice suits for some reason) and Sarah Brightman, among others. The most famous rendition — in that it brought the song to the attention of Amercia — is probably that of Billie Holiday.

My favourite, though, is by Winnipeg’s electro-crazy-breakcore-beatmesiter Venetian Snares (aka Aaron Funk). As a follow-up to his aptly titled 2005 album Winnipeg Is a Frozen Shithole, Funk decided to take off to Budapest and explore his Hungarian roots. While there, he apparently imagined himself a pigeon flying around the Királyi Palota (Royal Palace) and came back to Canada to compose the album Rossz csillag alatt született (Born Under a Bad Star). He sampled Holiday’s vocals for his version ‘Öngyilkos vasárnap:’

So — wondering how you managed to survive reading this post? Well, apparently the curse of the song expired with the death of Seress; good thing, considering they made a movie based on this song which has apparently been playing non-stop in a small, 11-seat theatre in Christchurch, NZ since 2001. At that rate it would have killed around half the city by now. Not to mention the tourists.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, March 8, 2008 9:09 am

    A midget killed himself by jumping from the 8th floor? Remember, that’d be the equivalent of a normal person jumping from 20.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    Monday, March 10, 2008 6:05 pm

    I’ve had the hungarian suicide song stuck in my head since reading this post. Thanks James, that’s really what I was missing in life.

  3. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 12:44 am

    Umm . . . sorry. Put on some happier, up-beat music and it should go away pretty soon.

  4. Tanya permalink
    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 4:34 pm

    I just realized it listed me as “anonymous”… ooh! mysterioso! No, this post reminded me that I am weirdly afraid of computers and believe they are just angry trapped ghosts who make me spreadsheets. It’s the same feeling that made me believe “Pulse” was an excellent movie. This song gives me the heeby-jeebies.

  5. Tuesday, March 11, 2008 6:48 pm

    That is one evil hellspawned e-ghost to make you believe Pulse was an excellent movie.

    Seriously though, if you still can’t get the song out of your head, and it’s really bothering you, there’s one sure-fire way put an end to it…

  6. Tanya permalink
    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 7:42 pm

    By watching Pulse again? Oh, no wait you mean suicide.

  7. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 9:41 pm

    I think maybe it’s time for a little ‘o this:

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