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THE DEPRESSING LEGEND OF ‘GLOOMY SUNDAY’

Posted on: October 29, 2012

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Can a song actually have the power to drive people to suicide? One song apparently did, and was as a consequence banned for many years. Even its very title is enough to send your spirits spiralling downwards. Gloomy Sunday. It immediately conjures up hours of stifling boredom, dreary weather, loneliness, annoying family, nowhere to go and nothing to do, time hanging heavy, Monday looming on the horizon. Most of us have endured Sundays like that in our time (sent up brilliantly by Tony Hancock, in one of my favourite ever Hancock’s Half-Hour episodes: ‘Sunday Afternoon At Home’).

It started out as a tune composed by Hungarian pianist Rezso Seress, who wrote it after splitting up with his girlfriend, (there is apparently no substance to the rumour that his ex-girlfriend killed herself after hearing the tune), and published in 1933 as ‘Vege A’Vilagnak’, or “end of the world” (cheery). Seress had trouble getting it published at all. One publisher described it as “having a sort of terrible compelling despair about it”. It was to get worse when depressing lyrics were added to it, which ran along the lines of “Sunday is gloomy / My hours are slumberless”, it goes on “My heart and I have decided to end it all”.

It was first recorded in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, and went on to be recorded by such singing legends as Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, and Bjork. During the course of the 1930s it was said to have been responsible for 19 suicides, both in Hungary and USA. It has been pointed out though that the 1930s (as now) were a time of great economic hardship across the world, and suicides weren’t exactly uncommon. In fact, for many years, Hungary had the unenviable title of Suicide Capital of Europe.

During World War Two the song cemented its macabre reputation by being banned by the BBC, as being bad for public morale, (although an instrumental version was allowed). The ban was only lifted in the early 2000s. In January 1968 Seress, the original composer, tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window in Budapest. He survived, but in hospital a short while later he choked himself to death with wire! The suicide of the song’s original composer can also only have added to its gloomy mystique.

A few years ago I heard of a popular young South Korean singer who was said to have unexpectedly killed himself. He had just recorded an album … needless to say Gloomy Sunday was one of the tracks on it. Do a browse on YouTube these days and you can find several artists with their own different versions of the song. I have to say I haven’t watched any of them. Even now, just the title ‘Gloomy Sunday’ puts me right off.

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