The original lyrics were titled Vége a világnak (The world is ending) and were about despair caused by war, ending in a quiet prayer about people's sins. Poet László Jávor wrote his own lyrics to the song, titled Szomorú vasárnap (Sad Sunday), in which the protagonist wants to commit suicide following his lover's death. The latter lyrics ended up becoming more popular while the former were essentially forgotten. The song was first recorded in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár in 1935.
"Gloomy Sunday" was first recorded in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis, and was recorded the same year by Paul Robeson, with lyrics by Desmond Carter. It became well-known throughout much of the English-speaking world after the release of a version by Billie Holiday in 1941. Lewis's lyrics referred to suicide, and the record label described it as the "Hungarian Suicide Song". There is a recurring urban legend which claims that many people have committed suicide while listening to this song.
Writing and background
The song was composed by Rezső Seress while living in Paris, in an attempt to become established as a songwriter in late 1932. The original musical composition was a piano melody in C-minor, with the lyrics being sung over it. Seress wrote the song at the time of the Great Depression and increasing fascist influence in the writer's native Hungary, although sources differ as to the degree to whether his song was motivated by personal melancholy rather than concerns about the future of the world. The basis of Seress's lyrics is a reproach to the injustices of man, with a prayer to God to have mercy on the modern world and the people who perpetrate evil. There are some suggestions that the words of "Vége a világnak" were in fact not written until World War II itself and not copyrighted until 1946.
Seress initially had difficulty finding a publisher, mainly due to the unusually melancholy nature of the song. One potential publisher stated:
|“||It is not that the song is sad, there is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don't think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that.||”|
The song was published as sheet music in late 1933, with lyrics by poet László Jávor, who was inspired by a recent break-up with his fiancée. According to most sources, Jávor rewrote the lyrics after the song's first publication, although he is sometimes described as the original writer of its words. His lyrics contained no political sentiments, but rather were a lament for the death of a beloved and a pledge to meet with the lover again in the afterlife. This version of the song became the best known, and most later rewritings are based around the idea of lost love.
There have been several urban legends regarding the song over the years, mostly involving it being allegedly connected with various numbers of suicides, and radio networks reacting by purportedly banning the song. However, most of these claims are unsubstantiated.
Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with "Gloomy Sunday", but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty, as well as the rise of Nazi Germany's influence in Europe. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide.
In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer did commit suicide.
The BBC banned Billie Holiday's version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC's ban was lifted by 2002.
Later recordings and notable performances
The song's notoriety contributed towards many other notable artists later recording the song, including:
- 1935Katalin Karády:
- 1936Paul Whiteman & Johnny Hauser:
- 1936Damia (in French as "Sombre dimanche"):
- 1936Noriko Awaya (in Japanese as "Kurai Nichiyōbi (暗い日曜日)"):
- 1936Agustín Magaldi (in Spanish as "Triste domingo"):
- 1937Pyotr Leshchenko (in Russian as "Мрачный воскресный день"):
- 1940Artie Shaw + Pauline Byrne:
- 1941Billie Holiday:
- 1941Mimi Thoma (in German as "Einsamer Sonntag"):
- 1946Luis Russell + Lee Richardson:
- 1958Mel Tormé:
- 1959Eila Pellinen (in Finnish as "Surullinen sunnuntai"):
- 1961Sarah Vaughan:
- 1961Lorez Alexandria:
- 1962Ketty Lester:
- 1962Lou Rawls:
- 1967Carmen McRae:
- 1968Genesis (the Los Angeles psychedelic rock band, not the UK progressive rock band):
- 1969Ray Charles:
- 1969Big Maybelle (on Saga of the Good Life & Hard Times):
- 1972Viktor Klimenko (in Russian as "Ona pred ikonoi", Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov lyrics):
- 1975Jimmy Witherspoon (on Spoonful):
- 1977Etta Jones (on My Mother's Eyes):
- 1980Lydia Lunch (on Queen of Siam album):
- 1981Elvis Costello (Trust) (Sam M. Lewis, Rezső Seress):
- 1982Associates (Sulk) (Sam M. Lewis, Rezső Seress) (singer : Billy Mackenzie committed suicide in 1997)
- 1983Marc Almond (Torment and Toreros) (Sam M. Lewis, Rezső Seress):
- 1984Peter Wolf (Lights Out) (Sam M. Lewis, Rezső Seress):
- 1985Harri Marstio (in Finnish, lyrics Reino Helismaa):
- 1986Christian Death (Atrocities) (Sam M. Lewis, Rezső Seress):
- 1987Dead Milkmen (as a bridge in their song "Blood Orgy of the Atomic Fern") :
- 1987Serge Gainsbourg (French version) :
- 1987Abbey Lincoln:
- 1987Marianne Faithfull:
- 1991Vlado Kreslin (Bela nedelja (Namesto koga roža cveti album)) (Vlado Kreslin lyrics):
- 1991Hot Club de Norvège (The Best of Hot Club de Norvege with Ivar Brodahl On Violin):
- 1992Diamanda Galás (The Singer) (Desmond Carter lyrics):
- 1992Sinéad O'Connor:
- 1992Woody Herman:
- 1994Anton LaVey (Released it in his 10" "Strange Music"):
- 1995Satan's Cheerleaders:
- 1995Creed Taylor Orchestra:
- 1996Sarah McLachlan (using Sam M. Lewis lyrics; from the Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff album):
- 1998Danny Michel (from the "Clear" album):
- 1999The Smithereens (on God Save The Smithereens album):
- 1999Detlef Petersen (Orchestral version - soundtrack of "Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod - Gloomy Sunday"):
- 1999Ben Becker (soundtrack of Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod - Gloomy Sunday – A Song of Love and Death):
- 1999Erika Marozsán (soundtrack of Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod - Gloomy Sunday – A Song of Love and Death):
- 2000Kronos Quartet (instrumental for string quartet):
- 2000Ricky Nelson (Legacy album) :
- 2000Sarah Brightman (using Sam M. Lewis lyrics; on La Luna):
- 2001Heather Nova (on the South album):
- 2001Iva Bittová:
- 2001NRG Ensemble (The Hal Russell Story):
- 2002Hans Koller (Lovers and Strangers):
- 2004Vlado Kreslin:
- 2004Branford Marsalis Quartet:
- 2005Venetian Snares (under Hungarian title "Öngyilkos vasárnap", literally meaning "Suicidal Sunday", incorporating a sample of Billie Holiday's 1941 rendition):
- 2005Jaurim in the album 靑春禮瓚 (청춘예찬, Ode to Youth):
- 2005Karin Krog:
- 2005Herbie Mann (Herbie Mann String Album):
- 2006Eminemmylou on the country rap album Muthabanjo:
- 2006Mickey Baker:
- 2006Peter Herbert:
- 2006Lucía Jiménez:
- 2006Greta Keller:
- 2006London Concertante:
- 2006Quadro Nuevo:
- 2007Lajos Dudas:
- 2008Page Cavanaugh:
- 2009Emilie Autumn (Billie Holiday lyrics - first 2 verses only):
- 2009Ryan “Chance” Bascombe (Hip Hop Remix - with a Billie Holiday Sample):
- 2010Leander Rising :
- 2010Pallbearer (band) (demo):
- 2010Björk (Alexander McQueen Commemorial):
- 2011Marissa Nadler and Ryan Lee Crosby:
- 2012Sarasvatī (on Mirror album):
- 2013Dax Riggs (live performances) :
- 2013Diamant (made specially for Halloween 2013):
- 2014Angelina Jordan (Norwegian Talent Show):
- 2015Yudi Suryono (X Factor Indonesia):
- 2015Epikurian (Remix-Noise Music Version):
- 2015Matt Forbes (Live at Capitol Studios):
- 2016: Boston Chamber Orchestra (orchestrated by Ivan Linn, from the film score of The Tenants Downstairs)
The song is featured in several scenes of Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List.
The 1999 German-Hungarian film Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod tells a fictional story about the creation of the song, depicting a love triangle during World War II. Heather Nova covers the song in the closing credits.
The song inspired the 2006 movie The Kovak Box, in which a writer is trapped on the island of Mallorca with people who are injected with a microchip that causes them to commit suicide when they hear "Gloomy Sunday". The song plays during the movie, sung by the actress Lucía Jiménez. A music video from the cover was released as part of the movie promotion. The song also features on the soundtrack of Wristcutters: A Love Story, performed by Artie Shaw.
In 2008, Belgian artist Marieke Van Wuytswinkel used a sample of Gloomy Sunday in her work A Natural Morning. The song and urban legend appeared in the Taiwanese drama Gloomy Salad Days. Actress Serena Fang recorded a version of "Gloomy Sunday" that was included in the soundtrack released on 19 November 2010. Gloomy Sunday was featured in a 2012 television episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True.
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