Do you believe a song can kill?
In the early 1930s, Hungarian songwriter Rezso Seress was struggling to make a living. Music publishers were uninterested in his work. His fiancée argued with him constantly. Give up the dream, she’d say, and who could blame her? The chips were down, and money was tight. But Seress wouldn’t have it; he’d become a successful songwriter, he told her, or he’d live out on the streets.
Unfortunately, his troubles continued. This led to one final heated argument, after which he and his fiancée parted ways.
The day after their fateful break up, which happened to be a Sunday, Seress sat alone in his apartment in Paris, his fingers tapping quietly at his piano. Dark clouds gathered in the sky, a gloomy thunderstorm to accompany his melancholy state of mind. It began to rain.
At that moment a strange melody came to Seress, and a fitting title for a new song: Szomorú Vasárnap.
The Song That Killed?
After he finished the composition, Seress shopped the new song — with lyrics by a friend, the poet Laszlo Javor — around to music publishers. Things didn’t go well at first. One publisher rejected the song for being too depressing. Eventually, however, a publisher accepted Gloomy Sunday, and in 1935 it was recorded by Hungarian pop singer Pal Kalmar.
Seress was elated, as you would expect. That’s when it started.
A young woman in Berlin was found hanging from a rope in her apartment, the sheet-music to Gloomy Sunday in her bedroom. Another woman, in New York, killed herself, and in her suicide note requested Gloomy Sunday to be played at her funeral. A man jumped to his death from his apartment window, the song’s sheet-music by his piano. A woman in London was found dead of an overdose as a record of Gloomy Sunday skipped over and over on a gramophone in the next room.
All told, at least 19 suicides — though some claim hundreds — were associated with the song. It became known as the “Hungarian suicide song,” and is even said to have been banned in Hungary due to its strange effect on those who listened.
Perhaps the most popular version of the song was Billie Holiday’s 1941 recording, sung in English. This version was also eventually banned by the BBC.
The story of the Hungarian suicide song ends nearly as it began. Well, sort of. Seress, hoping to get back together with his ex-fiancée, learned to his horror that she had poisoned herself. Just as the other alleged suicides, she too had the sheet-music to Gloomy Sunday nearby. Finally, in 1968, Rezso Seress himself committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building in Budapest, Hungary.
Of course, all of this is just an urban legend, with bits of truth sprinkled in, and mostly coincidences. A song can’t really kill.