Many legends and myths throughout human history have involved songs, chants or musical incantations believed to bring misfortune or even death upon those unfortunate enough to hear them. One of the most famous examples of this is the legendary account of the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, whose seductive songs were capable of luring sailors to their deaths.
But a more modern variant on this type of legend actually has its basis in fact — specifically, a song originally titled “Vége a Világnak,” or “The World is Ending,” which was composed in 1933 by Rezső Seress (pictured below), a Hungarian composer living in Paris at the time.
Seress had great difficulty securing a publisher for the song, due to its tone of overwhelming despair, but eventually it was published in sheet-music form in late 1933. Since then, the song has been recorded multiple times by a wide range of artists in many languages (including English, German, French, Spanish and Japanese), most often under the much less ominous title “Gloomy Sunday” — translated from the Hungarian “Szomorú Vasárnap.”
Here’s the most popular version of all time, recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday in 1941:
But according to a widespread rumor which has persisted for many decades, all recordings and performances of “Gloomy Sunday” as we know it today do not actually contain the song’s original lyrics — written by Hungarian poet László Jávor — which, as the story goes, were originally intended as a personal appeal by the poet to his ex-fiancée, who had recently left him.
That first version allegedly caused both Jávor and his estranged lover to commit suicide after a brief and unsuccessful reunion. In both cases, they took their lives by jumping out a window, leaving behind a note bearing only the song’s first title “Vége a Világnak” — The World is Ending.
“Gloomy Sunday” soon became known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song,” and in its original incarnation was said to have caused dozens of people around the world to take their own lives after hearing it broadcast on the radio for the first time.
Bizarrely, Rezső Seress himself committed suicide as well, although this tragedy occurred in January of 1968 — over three decades after the song was written. (The composer was known by friends and associates to have battled intense depression throughout his life.)
Another reported death was that of shoemaker Joseph Keller, who allegedly quoted some of the song’s lyrics in his suicide note; other accounts describe multiple human corpses found in the Danube river with copies of the song’s lyrics in their pockets or clutched in their hands.
Stories in major publications — including TIME Magazine and The New York Times — mentioned a possible link between “Gloomy Sunday” and numerous suicide attempts.
After the song was first broadcast in its original form, public outcry led many radio stations worldwide to ban the song from being played on the air. In 1936, the song was reportedly re-released for a brief period, this time with a completely different set of lyrics.
The “altered” version, translated from Hungarian, goes something like this:
On a sad Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you, my dear, with a church prayer
That dream-chasing Sunday morning
The chariot of my sadness returned without you.
Ever since then, Sundays are always sad.
Tears are my drink, and sorrow is my bread.
Last Sunday, my dear, please come along,
There will even be priest, coffin, catafalque, hearse-cloth.
Even then flowers will be awaiting you, flowers and coffin.
Under blossoming trees
My journey shall be the last.
My eyes will be open, so that I can see you one more time.
Do not be afraid of my eyes, as I am blessing you even in my death.
The most widely-circulated English version of the song changed the lyrics even further, to enable a rhyme and cadence comfortable to the ears of English-speaking audiences.
Here’s one of the first English recordings, performed in 1936 by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with singer Johnny Hauser:
Even in this altered form, the song was still believed to cause a potentially lethal state of melancholy in some listeners, and lyrical versions of the song — including popular renditions by Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson — were banned from broadcast by the BBC. That ban was finally lifted in 2002.
An anonymous source eventually came forward with what they claimed to the original lyrics — the same ones said to have triggered the deaths of many who heard them sung with the accompanying melody.
The loose English translation of the original Hungarian text — which some claim to have been written by composer Seress rather than by Jávor — paints a darker, more unsettling vision of the world as the writer perceived it.
This tone may be due to the looming shadow of war, and Nazi Germany’s impending occupation of France during the composer’s time in Paris. It’s possible director Steven Spielberg had this in mind decades later, when he incorporated the song into the soundtrack of SCHINDLER’S LIST. The song is also referenced in the Netflix series 13 REASONS WHY, which recounts the events leading to a young student’s suicide — and has generated considerable controversy in itself.
Here are the lyrics which are rumored to have triggered multiple suicides in the song’s original Hungarian incarnation:
It is autumn and the leaves are falling,
All love has died on earth.
The wind is weeping with sorrowful tears,
My heart will never hope for a new spring again.
My tears and my sorrows are all in vain,
People are heartless, greedy and wicked…
Love has died!
The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning,
Cities are wiped out, shrapnel is making music,
Meadows are colored red with human blood,
There are dead people on the streets everywhere.
I will say another quiet prayer:
People are sinners, Lord, they make mistakes…
The world has ended!
Now, if you really want to take a chance on listening to the original version, I found a copy of the first known recording, taken from Rezső Seress’s original sheet music. Here’s the complete song: