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"Gloomy Sunday" is a song composed by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress and published in 1933, as "Vége a világnak" ("End of the world"). Lyrics were written by László Jávor, and in his version the song was retitled "Szomorú vasárnap" (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈsomoruː ˈvɒʃaːrnɒp]) ("Sad Sunday"). The song was first recorded in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár in 1935.
"Gloomy Sunday" was first recorded in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis, and was recorded the same year by Paul Robeson, with lyrics by Desmond Carter. It became well known throughout much of the English-speaking world after the release of a version by Billie Holiday in 1941. Lewis's lyrics referred to suicide, and the record label described it as the "Hungarian Suicide Song". There is a recurring urban legend that claims that many people committed suicide with this song playing.
The song was composed by Rezső Seress while living in Paris, in an attempt to become established as a songwriter in late 1932. The original musical composition was a piano melody in C-minor, with the lyrics being sung over it. Seress wrote the song at the time of the Great Depression and increasing fascist influence in the writer's native Hungary, although sources differ as to the degree to which his song was motivated by personal melancholy rather than concerns about the future of the world. The basis of Seress's lyrics is a reproach to the injustices of man, with a prayer to God to have mercy on the modern world and the people who perpetrate evil. There are some suggestions that the words of "Vége a világnak" were in fact not written until World War II itself and not copyrighted until 1946.
Seress initially had difficulty finding a publisher, mainly due to the unusually melancholy nature of the song. One potential publisher stated:
|“||It is not that the song is sad, there is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don't think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that.||”|
The song was published as sheet music in late 1933, with lyrics by poet László Jávor, who was inspired by a recent break-up with his fiancée. According to most sources, Jávor rewrote the lyrics after the song's first publication, although he is sometimes described as the original writer of its words. His lyrics contained no political sentiments, but rather were a lament for the death of a beloved and a pledge to meet with the lover again in the afterlife. This version of the song became the best known, and most later rewritings are based around the idea of lost love.
Translation of the original lyrics:
"Szomorú Vasárnap száz fehér virággal, Vártalak kedvesem templomi imával, Álmokat kergető Vasárnap délelőtt, Bánatom hintaja nélküled visszajött,
Azóta szomorú mindig a Vasárnap Könny csak az italom kenyerem a bánat... Szomorú Vasárnap.
Utolsó vasárnap kedvesem gyere el Pap is lesz, koporsó, ravatal, gyászlepel Akkor is virág vár, virág és - koporsó Virágos fák alatt utam az utolsó Nyitva lesz szemem hogy még egyszer lássalak Ne félj a szememtől holtan is áldalak...
"On a sad Sunday with a hundred white flowers, I awaited for you my dear with a church prayer, That dream chasing Sunday morning, The chariot of my sadness returned without you,
Ever since then, Sundays are always sad, tears are my drink bread is my sorrow... Sad Sunday.
Last Sunday dear please come along, There will even be priest, coffin, catafalque, hearse-cloth. Even then flowers will be awaiting you, Flowers and coffin under blossoming (flowering in Hungarian) trees my journey shall be the last, My eyes will be open, so that I can see you one more time, Don't be frightened from my eyes as I'm blessing you even in my death... Last Sunday."
The song was first recorded, in Hungarian and using Jávor's lyrics, by Pál Kalmár in 1935. His version immediately became popular in Hungary, but became associated with a high number of suicides, reportedly including that of Jávor's ex-fiancee, and several people who jumped into the Danube holding copies of the sheet music. According to some sources, the Hungarian authorities then banned public performances of the song in response.
After press reports about the "Hungarian suicide song" were published elsewhere in the world, it was quickly translated into other languages. It was recorded in 1935 by Pyotr Leschenko, in Russian, as "Мрачное воскресенье" ["Mrachnoe voskresen'e"]. It was recorded on February 28, 1936, by Damia as "Sombre Dimanche", with French lyrics by Jean Marèze and François-Eugène Gonda, and was recorded in Japanese in 1936 by Noriko Awaya, as "Kurai Nichiyobi".
Several versions using English lyrics were published. In the United States, the most successful set of words was written by Sam M. Lewis, whose other lyrics included, in marked contrast, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World". Lewis's lyrics start with the line "Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless..." and, unlike earlier versions, refer specifically to suicide in the lines "Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all / My heart and I have decided to end it all." However, Lewis's song ends with the realisation that the singer's despair was all a dream. The version with Lewis's words was first recorded in March 1936, by bandleader Hal Kemp, featuring vocalist Bob Allen. The song was also recorded by Paul Whiteman in 1936. Another successful early version was by Artie Shaw, featuring singer Pauline Byrns.
An alternative set of lyrics was written in England by Desmond Carter. His version, again using Seress's tune, was recorded by Paul Robeson in 1936. Carter's lyrics start with the line "Sadly one Sunday I waited and waited..."
"Gloomy Sunday" was dubbed the "Hungarian suicide song" in the United States. It became closely associated in the English-speaking world with Billie Holiday. Her version of the song, using Lewis's lyrics, became a hit in 1941, and the description appeared on the label of Holiday's record.
There have been several urban legends regarding the song over the years, mostly involving it being allegedly connected with various numbers of suicides, and radio networks reacting by purportedly banning the song. However, most of these claims are unsubstantiated.
Press reports in the 1930s associated at least 19 suicides, both in Hungary and America, with "Gloomy Sunday", but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide.
In January 1968, some 35 years after writing the song, its composer Rezső Seress did commit suicide. He survived jumping out of a window in Budapest, but later in the hospital choked himself to death with a wire.
The BBC banned Billie Holiday's version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC's ban was lifted by 2002.
Gloomy Sunday was featured in a 2012 television episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True.
The song's notoriety contributed towards many other notable artists later recording the song, including:
The 1999 German film Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod tells a fictional story about the creation of the song, depicting a love triangle during World War II. Heather Nova covers the song in the closing credits.
The song inspired the 2006 movie The Kovak Box, in which writer is trapped on the island of Mallorca with people who are injected with a microchip that causes them to commit suicide when they hear "Gloomy Sunday". The song plays during the movie, sung by the actress Lucía Jiménez. A music video from the cover was released as part of the movie promotion. The song also features on the soundtrack of Wristcutters: A Love Story, performed by Artie Shaw.