Is ‘Gloomy Sunday’ really the saddest song of all time?


When the poverty-stricken Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress was looking for a publisher for his jazz song ‘Gloomy Sunday’, one of his rejections came with the appraisal: “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.” These words proved spookily prescient.

The song would eventually be published, and the interim years saw a spike in suicides to such an extent in Seress’ native Hungary that the track became known as the ‘Hungarian Suicide Song’. First published in 1933, reports from the time claimed that the song quickly became linked to 100 separate suicides. The song then went global in a wave of perverse curiosity that saw countless American versions crop up. This overture of doom prompted the BBC to ban Billie Holliday’s version in 1941 for fear it would dampen wartime morale, and this wasn’t lifted until 2002.

Completing the despairing narrative of this haunting piece of music was the suicide of Seress himself, who took his own life 35 years after writing the composition. So, it only seems natural that the song is now imbued with myths of curses, haunted melodies and subsumed by dark hearsay. However, this is more of a case where art imitates life than the poetic obverse. If it is the saddest song of all time, then it is a product of the era that spawned it.

At the time of writing the composition, Seress was already suicidal, but so too was half of the world. He found himself a struggling musician down and out in Paris in 1932. The Great Depression was thrusting the world into ever-deepening poverty, and the finger-pointing rise of fascism was coaxing up conspiratorial divides, amplifying this despair. Things had reached such a fever pitch of ruination that a mere gloomy Sunday would’ve almost been a welcome comfort. The original lyrics were rather more fitting than the title: “Vége a világnak (The world is ending)”.

These original lyrics were discarded when the poet László Jávor performed the old writer’s trick of condensing the big picture into something more personal, allowing listeners to feel more empathetic while also distant from the doom. Jávor’s lyrics told the tale of a lonely protagonist’s bid to commit suicide following the death of his lover. This was the version that was popularised by the permanently hatted pop singer Pál Kalmár in 1935.

Jávor himself had just recently split from his fiancée adding another level of poetic depth to the protagonist’s bid to be reunited in the afterlife with his late lover. But over the years, these quirks in the song’s backstory served to simply propel urban myths. When digging beneath these stories of related suicides, it is hard to corroborate any of the information. We’re left with spurious mentions in old newspaper reports and a few press tricks that drove the ironic commercial appeal of the song. And while the overarching evidence does show that suicides rose following the publication of the song – notably rapidly in Hungary – there are far more obvious causes for this than a mere maudlin track.

All that being said, there is a crushing nature to the damnation perpetuated in the song. Unlike a lot of efforts that strive for despair, there is a perturbing level of sincerity held within the strange humility of the song. This does not seem like the put-upon hardship that many ’emo’ efforts drum up but rather a weary sigh written by Seress with a sense that the song would never see the light of day, which is only added to bu the lowly Jávor’s lyrics which were later added.

‘Gloomy Sunday’ English lyrics:

“Sunday is gloomy,
My hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows
I live with are numberless
Little white flowers
Will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of
Sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought
Of ever returning you,
Would they be angry
If I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday,
With shadows I spend it all
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all
Soon there’ll be candles
And prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep
Let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream
For in death I’m caressing you
With the last breath of my soul
I’ll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

(Last verse often omitted):

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep
In the deep of my heart, dear
Darling I hope
That my dream never haunted you
My heart is tellin’ you
How much I wanted you

Gloomy Sunday”.

Now, this troubled song is saddled with a troubling disposition. As such, it is perhaps best to leave the tugged narrative of the song behind and focus instead on the hardships in the life of Seress that drove him to write it and perpetuated the mirthless myth thereafter.

Seress might have found relative fame with ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but he found no fortune. Rather than travel to America to collect royalties for his record, he wanted to stay in Hungary instead and ironically boost morale by performing in a shivering restaurant in Budapest frequented by the bohemian underclass of sex workers and working-class Jews of which he was one. In the scourge of the war to come, he was forced into a Nazi labour camp in Ukraine, where his mother died.

Seress would survive, but he would never mentally recover. His New York Times obituary from the time of his death reads: “Authorities disclosed today that Mr. Seress jumped from a window of his small apartment here last Sunday, shortly after his 69th birthday.”

“The decade of the nineteen-thirties was marked by severe economic depression and the political upheaval that was to lead to World War II. The melancholy song written by Mr. Seress, with words by his friend, Ladislas Javor, a poet, declares at its climax, ‘My heart and I have decided to end it all’. It was blamed for a sharp increase in suicides, and Hungarian officials finally prohibited it.”

Concluding: “Mr. Seress complained that the success of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ actually increased his unhappiness, because he knew he would never be able to write a second hit.”

Undoubtedly, that signifies a very tragic tale both on the personal and societal level. However, when the troublesome myths are removed, there is almost a fitting sense of hopeful transcendence that the song survives today. It speaks of a cognisance regarding the state of the world that proves prescient even today, illuminating the lessons to be learnt from history, which prove far more alarming than the many falsehoods caught up in the welter of this haunting refrain.

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