It was originally called “The World Is Ending.”
Written by Hungarian musician Rezso Seress, the earliest version of the infamous “Hungarian Suicide Song” was written in 1933 about the despair in a country followed by the ravages of war. Apparently not depressing enough, a poet took it upon himself to write new lyrics. László Jávor’s version was titled “Sad Sunday” and detailed the singer’s desire to kill themselves after the death of their lover.
This version, known as “Gloomy Sunday,” is the one that has endured.
It’s been recorded first in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár in 1935, then in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, and eventually covered by artists such as Billie Holiday, Sarah McLachlan, and Björk. But the famous names tied to its various versions aren’t what makes this song so interesting… it’s the darkness that lurks behind its history.
First, let’s take a look at the lyrics of “Sad Sunday.”
On a sad Sunday with a hundred white flowers,
I was waiting 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, and sorrow is my bread…
Last Sunday, my 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,
Do not be afraid of my eyes as I am blessing you even in my death…
Wow. Bummer. Okay, how about the Billie Holiday version — the one that’s considered the “classic?”
Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless;
Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless;
Little white flowers will never awaken you,
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you;
Angels have no thought of ever returning you;
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
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.
Dreaming, I was only dreaming;
I wake and I find you
Asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you;
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you.
Okay. Super bummer. But really enough of a bummer to supposedly cause hundreds of Hungarian suicides — as well as suicides across the world upon its global release?
The waters here are murky. There are no solid facts that definitively tie “Gloomy Sunday” to have caused anyone’s death by their own hand, but in the months following its release in Hungary, up to 17 suicides were reportedly blamed on the song. (One must note that Hungary has always had a higher rate of suicide than other countries, and during the 1930s overall morale was considered quite low due to famine and poverty.)
It’s rumored that the Hungarian authorities banned “Sad Sunday” from being played in public and it’s a fact that between 1941 and 2002 the BBC had actually banned Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday” version from being broadcast.
While much of this suicide talk may be chalked up to a simple urban legend or a brilliant marketing idea, I’m sad to say that the creator of “Sad Sunday,” Rezso Seress, did kill himself in 1968. Despite surviving a Nazi labor camp and a suicidal leap from a building in Budapest, Seress choked himself to death with a wire while recovering from his fall.
So, that being said, are you brave enough to listen to the original version in Hungarian? The one that supposedly drove (at the very least) 17 souls to take their own lives?
Let’s find out.