Many say that Hungarian folk songs are more melancholic and even sometimes sadder than the similar songs of other nations. Even though I do not share this opinion there was a song which was associated with 19 deaths and therefore, e.g. BBC banned its broadcast. This song is Rezső Seres’s Gloomy Sunday, the most well-known Hungarian song in the world.
Popularity came with suicides
The song was composed by Rezső Seress in 1932 as a piano melody in the melancholic C-minor. Originally, its title was The world is ending and it was about despair caused by war ending in a prayer about the sins of people. In fact, Seress was a genius of his time writing dozens of popular hits in the 1930s, but he could not read music. Thus, he asked a graduate from the Academy to help him
write down what he was whistling.
However, poet László Jávor rewrote its lyric and changed its title to Gloomy Sunday in which the main protagonist commits suicide because his lover died. He was inspired by a recent break-up with his fiancée so he sang about meeting his lover again in the afterlife. Interestingly, the former was forgotten while the latter became world-famous. But how?
At first, it seemed that it would be forgotten in no time. However,
a maidservant committed suicide
and police found the lyrics of the Gloomy Sunday in her hands. Later, a ministerial advisor shot himself dead in a car and the police found the lyrics of the song in his hands, too. Shortly, 8 Órai Újság, a popular Hungarian daily in those days, wrote about the song as the ‘suicide song.’
Consequently, the song became very popular and it was released in English in 1936 with revised lyrics by Ray M. Lewis clearly referring to suicide:
“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”
The composer himself committed suicide twice
Press reports associated the song with at least 19 suicides in the 1930s both in Hungary and the United States. Of course, verification was difficult, but the song engrained as ‘the suicide song’ in the mind of the people. In fact, many Historians say that in the 1930s the Great Depression followed by famine and poverty and
the rise of Nazi Germany’s influence in Europe
were the most important causes of the increased number of suicides.
Anyway, for example, BBC banned the song and its ban was only lifted in 2002.
Although the song became world-famous and it was translated to multiple languages, its composer remained to live in poverty in Hungary. Even though American authorities notified him that a royalty worth more than
370,000 dollars was waiting for him
in the United States, he did not travel there because, according to him, he was afraid of heights. American authorities did not transfer him the money because Hungary owed indemnity after WWII. Thus, he lived in extreme poverty in Budapest and in 1968 he decided to commit suicide. Even though he survived jumping out of a window, later in the hospital
he choked himself to death with a wire.