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n Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of sheet music.

In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted from the l
yrics of the same song. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record
of the song over and over.
The piece of music that connects all these deaths is the notorious Gloomy Sunday.
Nicknamed the Hungarian suicide song, it has been linked to over one hundred suici
des, including the one of the man who composed it.
Of course, this might all be an urban legend.
One thing s for sure, though. Gloomy Sunday s composer Rezso Seress did take his life,
and the success of his greatest hit may have been a contributing factor.
Sad Songs Say So Much
In 1933, the Hungarian-born Seress (ne Rudi Spitzer) was a 34-year-old struggling
songwriter.
Some accounts have him living in Paris, others Budapest. The story goes that aft
er his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that be
came Gloomy Sunday. A minor-key ribbon of blue smoke, the tune was given an equall
y melancholy lyric - in Hungarian - by Seress s friend, the poet Laszlo Javor. Som
e reports claim it was Javor s girlfriend who left him, inspiring the song as a po
em first. Others say that Seress wrote his own lyric, about war and apocalypse,
then Javor later changed it to a heartbreak ballad.
Whatever the case, Szomor Vasrnap, as it was titled, didn t make much of a splash at f
irst. But two years later, a recorded version by Pl Klmar was connected to a rash
of suicides in Hungary. The song was then allegedly banned. Short of learning Hu
ngarian and trawling through Budapest newspapers from the 1930s, it is impossibl
e to verify any of this (Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicid
e rates in the world - approximately 46 out of every 100,000 people take their o
wn lives there every year).
But it certainly makes for a juicy story. And it did at the time, too, because m
usic publishers from America and England soon came calling.
Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sam M. Lewis and British theater lyricist Desmond Carter
each wrote an English translation of the song. It was Lewis's version, recorded
in 1936 by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, that caught on.
Sam Lewis, best known for chirpy hits such as I m Gonna Sit Write Down And Write My
self A Letter, stayed close to the bitter despair of the original. Here s his secon
d 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.
Lewis did make one concession to commerciality by tacking on a third verse that
beamed a ray of light into the tune s darkness. It began:
Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.
In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the definitive version of Gloomy Sunday. Having t
he hard-living Lady Day associated with the song certainly upped the tragedy ant

e.
Despite conflicting reports, the song was never officially banned in the U.S., t
hough it was in England. In the early 40s, the BBC deemed the song too upsetting
r the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on
the radio.

fo

In 1984, Gloomy Sunday was in the news again, by association, when Ozzy Osbourne w
as taken to court by the parents of a teen who shot himself while listening to t
he rocker s song Suicide Solution. In 1999, a German film, Ein Lied von Liebe und To
d (Gloomy Sunday - A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love tr
iangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides. And in recent years, the s
ong has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Hea
ther Nova.
What Became of Rezso Seress?
During World War II, he was put in a labor camp by the Nazis, which he survived.
After that, he worked in the theater and the circus, where he was a trapeze art
ist. He later returned to songwriting, though he never had another hit as big as
Gloomy Sunday.
In fact, the story goes that when the song first became a success, Seress attemp
ted to reconcile with the ex who inspired it. Shortly after, he heard that she h
ad 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 Su
nday"). Whether that s true or not, Seress himself did commit suicide, in 1968, ju
mping from the window of a Budapest apartment building.
Seress once wrote of his conflicted emotions towards his morbid masterpiece: I st
and 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.

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