Gloomy Sunday is often subtitled the, “Hungarian Suicide Song,” but is this a marketing ploy, or something more? This song has been blamed for at least 19 suicides.
Accusing music of foul influence is not new. Songs have been maligned for as long as we’ve had music. Centuries before the electric guitar, the fiddle and violin were, “the devil’s instrument.” Music, labeled as evil, was known in the ancient world, as with the mysterious song of the siren. Civilizations from ancient Greece, Africa, and into the East believed evil spirits could be summoned through music played in specific arrangements or speeds.
Gloomy Sunday was created by Hungarian composer Rezső Seress in 1933. In Hungarian, the title was End of the World. László Jávor created the lyrics shortly after. Jávor also changed the title to Sad Sunday. The song was not recorded until 1935, when Pál Kalmár sang on the first recording.
Gloomy Sunday was recorded in English in 1936. The men responsible for the English lyric translation were Hal Kemp, Sam M. Lewis, Paul Robeson, and Desmond Carter. Two of the translators would never see the song’s ultimate success. Desmond Carter died unexpectedly in 1939. Hal Kemp died in 1940, from complications he sustained in a car wreck.
Just a year after Kemp’s death, Billie Holiday recorded the version that made it a classic. The English lyrics, as created by Lewis, referred to the act of suicide, and the record label added “Hungarian Suicide Song” onto the title.
The Hungarian tune remained popular, but a sinister trend emerged. It became associated with many suicides. Rumors also suggested that Jávor’s ex-fiancée was among those who flung themselves into the Danube, clutching the sheet music for the song. Rumors stated the Hungarian authorities had banned all public performances of the song, due to the rise in suicides.
Infamy only made the song more popular. It was translated into Russian, French, and Japanese that same year. There are many legends of suicides, as well as radio stations that refused to play the song, but it’s difficult to authenticate such claims.
After its release in 1935, the tune was associated with 19 suicides. Many today suspect the figures were just the Hungarian suicides that spanned the decade. Some believe the rates were due to Hungary’s rampant poverty and famine before World War II, and not a song. No scholarly or formal studies were ever conducted to verify any of the claims.
Another incredible coincidence is that the song’s original composer, Rezső Seress, committed suicide in 1968. It had been three decades since he authored the piece. He flung himself out of a window in Budapest, but survived. He then choked himself in the hospital with a piece of wire.
- Gloomy Sunday was featured in the Discovery Channel’s Dark Matters: Twisted but True.
- Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod was a German film in 1999 that discussed the song’s origins.
- The Kovak Box was a 2006 film that also utilized the song.
Billlie Holiday’s version of Gloomy Sunday was banned by the BBC during the war, but allowed instrumental versions. The ban was lifted in 2002. The BBC stated the song was damaging to morale during war.
The original article appeared here http://appalachiangothic.com/2012/09/gloomy-sunday-innocent-infamous/
- “Gloomy Sunday” Wikipedia.org, Dec. 15, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday
- “Gloomy Sunday – The Hungarian Suicide Song” HistoricMysteries.com, Dec. 15, 2017,
- “Gloomy Sunday: did the ‘Hungarian suicide song’ really create a suicide epidemic?” NIH.gov, Dec. 15, 2017