This post was originally published on The 21st Floor.
Music is one of the most powerful, emotive and important “inventions” of all time. It can unite people in ways other things can’t. At a football match songs can ring from the stands as supporters unite to show solidarity and rejoice in their teams successes, those in comas have been played music to try and break through, couples have “their song”, a movie can be made or broken on it’s soundtrack, as Shakespeare said “If music be the food of love, play on”. We have music to drive to, music to watch girls go by, music to exercise to, and in the 1930s we had music to kill yourself to!
Now, I don’t mean that “Emo” music existed in the 1930s, I refer to a piece of music known as “Gloomy Sunday” or “The Suicide Song” as it has become widely known. We need to set the scene, to do this we must travel back to pre war Budapest and to a Hungarian poet by the name of László Jávor. Jávor had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was devastated. Instead of moving on and finding love elsewhere Krone decided he could best deal with the break up by writing a poem. The poem “Szomorú Vasárnap” was a two stanza piece with the title repeated as a sort of bridge, but something was missing. Poetry was fine but Javor needed something else, he needed music, and luckily for him one of his friends happened to be a [pretty unsuccessful] composer. This is the part of the story where we must introduce Mr. Rezso Seress.
Seress was also from Budapest and spent much of his life living in poverty, until his friend asked him to compose music to his poem. Seress jumped at the chance and wrote a haunting melody to compliment the lyrics and “Gloomy Sunday”, as it was known in English, became an international hit, most famously being used in the 90s movie Schindler’s List showing that the song still lives on- unlike many who listened to it apparently. You see, shortly after the release of the music people started dying. Killing themselves. Seress himself is even said to have committed suicide shortly after completion of the track. The sheet music was found with suicides near by, people had killed themselves after hearing the song on the radio- an occurrence so common that the BBC banned the song from their airwaves until recently- in New York a young secretary gassed herself to death, a bobby in London found a suicide in a flat where the music was playing on loop, a 14 year old girl drowned herself holding copies of the sheet music, 17 of which were said to have happened in Seress’ home country of Hungary. No mechanism was ever suggested as to how or why this song was a killer, but despite Javor writing the lyrics it is Seress’ name that is always associated with the song.
So, how much of the urban legend is true? How many people did the song lead to suicide? Was it really banned by the BBC and did its composer throw himself to his death shortly after. As with all urban legends the reality has been mixed so much with the fiction it is sometimes difficult to pull apart. But let’s have a look shall we? Seress did indeed kill himself after writing the music… 35 years after he wrote it that is. Seress’ emotional state had been affected by the song in as much as he felt he could never better it and could never produce anything that would stand side by side with Gloomy Sunday. What about the 17 suicides in Hungary? That’s pretty easy, Gloomy Sunday was a hugely successful song, especially in Hungary. Hungary also is ranked number 10 in suicide rates today and that has been rising since the 1950s, before that it appears the suicide rate was still pretty high with a dip in the early 50s before heading back up again. So it’s a case of correlation and causation mix up it seems. High suicide rate plus popular music equals proof positive that the song is killing apparently. Again, the other deaths are simply correlation and no causation. There are no suicide notes, which I’m aware of, that states the song lead anyone to kill themselves. Considering the feeling that the song conveys it doesn’t seem too unlikely that it could be the type of song that those contemplating suicide might listen to, it ticks all the boxes for being a sad song, but there is no evidence anyone committed suicide because of this song.
So, we cannot possibly say the song is responsible for deaths, so why did the BBC ban it? It seems likely that it was due to censorship more that anything else. It wasn’t even the original version that was banned. In 1941 Billie Holliday recorded a version with new lyrics. Although the original lyrics are pretty depressing, they don’t contain any mention of suicide directly; instead it is suggested but could also be read as being a metaphor for loss. The Holliday lyrics however do contain direct references to suicide, for example:
“Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you”
“Sunday is gloomy
with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all”
It is hardly surprising that Britain in the 1940s decided these lyrics were not really appropriate and not very good for morale. Apparently there was some minor conflict going on at the time and London was getting nightly visits from someone called “Gerry”. The BBC banning the song with those lyrics is not very surprising. It’s a very risqué song even for today, never mind for the stiff upper lipped Blitzed Brits of the 1940s.
The song has never been directly linked to a death, in much the same way as Marilyn Manson was demonised after Columbine, Seress’ Gloomy Sunday received the same treatment. The original piece is truly amazing but it isn’t easy finding recordings with the original lyrics, though an early English recording exists. I’ll leave you with this recording by the ever awesome Kronos Quartet.