A skilled musician doesn’t only express heartbreak, he universalizes it. Sometimes a song publicizes the heartache of an individual whose name and love story are far less famous than the song itself, as is the case with Alvin Krolik, whose loveless life and brutal death inspired Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton to pen Elvis Presley’s 1955 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Sometimes musicians express pain so evocatively that they are blamed for urging their listeners to self-harm, as the grieving parents of James Vance and Raymond Belknap claimed in their 1985 lawsuit against the heavy metal band, Judas Priest. If music evokes emotion, then certainly a mournful song could exacerbate one’s suicidal tendencies. But surely the dismissal of the case against Judas Priest proved no song could make someone suicidal…Well, except one.
The truth: In 1932, Hungarian composer Rezsó Seress (born Rudolf or Rudi Spitzer) and Hungarian poet and lyricist, Lázló Javór, wrote a song together. At that time, the song was entitled, “Vége a Vlágnak,” Hungarian for, “End of the World.” No accounts of the songwriting session by contemporary witnesses exist, as neither man was famous at the time, but present day sources about the song contain unverifiable details. These include: The song was written on a Sunday, and one of the men had suffered a devastating break up the day before. There was a loud thunderstorm for the entirety of the songwriting session. Some sources claim both writers intended for their composition to be a love song. Others claim Seress wrote political song lyrics first, and Javór replaced them with romantic lyrics he believed better suited the melancholy melody. If the circumstances under which the song was written seem important to contemporary listeners, it is not only because the song is now famous, but because of what it is famous for.
In 1934, the song was recorded by Hungarian pop singer, Pál Kálmar. It was released under the title, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” Hungarian for, “Gloomy Sunday.” According to lore, that is when the suicides that gave the song the nickname, “The Hungarian Suicide Song” began. In Vienna, a teenage girl deliberately drowned herself while holding the sheet music for, “Gloomy Sunday.” A Budapest shopkeeper left the lyrics of “Gloomy Sunday” as his suicide note. A woman in London deliberately overdosed while listening to a record of “Gloomy Sunday. Seress’ girlfriend leaped out of a window, and her suicide note simply read, “Gloomy Sunday.” Of course, none of these suicides can be verified. It is impossible to verify whether any of the people alleged to have committed suicide while playing the song or left suicide notes inspired by the song even lived. None of the nineteen to one hundred suicides supposedly related to the song have been verified. Nonetheless, the song’s macabre notoriety brought it to the attention of an international audience. Songwriter Ray M. Lewis translated the song into English in 1936, and American blues singer, Billie Holiday covered the song in 1941. Though Holiday’s version is the most well known, the English version of the song has been covered by contemporary American artists working in various musical genres, including Elvis Costello and Sarah McLachlan.
Though it is impossible to verify every self inflicted death that took place while the song was playing or every suicide note that included its lyrics, there are two men whose lives were definitely ruined by the song, its writers. László Javór said, “Have I become the poet of the suicidal? From all the attacks against me by the press, I’m starting to feel like a murderer!” Javór may have felt like a murderer, but Rezsó Seress became a suicide. In 1968, when he was sixty-nine, he jumped off of a building. He survived the fall, and he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. According to lore, he choked himself with a wire while lying in his hospital bed. Seress did not leave a suicide note, but his personal and political hardships are well documented. As a teenager, he was imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp. He survived, but his mother did not. His experience in the labor camp made him loyal to the Communist party. He became disillusioned when the Communist party leaders, like the leaders of the Nazi party, used violence and surveillance in order to coerce members into unquestioning obedience to the party. Even after his faith in his political party wavered, he was loyal to his home country. He refused to travel to America in order to collect his royalties for his international hit. Despite writing a successful song, Seress died impoverished.
Perhaps he ended his life because he, like hundreds of alleged others, was saddened by his signature song “Szomorú Vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday).” Perhaps he ended his life because he could not bear grieving the losses that defined it. Perhaps he was influenced by all of these factors, or perhaps he was influenced by none of them. Perhaps, as Hungarian orchestra conductor, László Márosi claimed, Seress suffered unimaginably and died elegiacally because that is what all gifted artists do. Talking about the effect Seress’ artistry has had on his own on the Blackout episode of the National Public Radio (NPR) show, SNAP, Márosi said, “So what [the song means] for me – something beautiful. This is what came to my mind – not the sadness, not the drama, but beautiful – beautifully sadness. If I would have the chance to die, I would do that – commit suicide with this song, put it on. And I just haven’t decided which day – not yet.”
Since Seress only wrote one well known song, he worried the legacy of his art would be the perpetuation of suffering, both his own and that of his listeners. He said, “I stand in the midst of this deadly success an accused man […] I cried all my disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it.” Seress’ song did not make him less lonely, but its popularity shows he was never alone.
The following is the original song talked about in this article, but it obviously goes with a big warning if you are planning to click play…