Gloomy Sunday Hungarian composer Rezső Seress dreamed of changing the world with his music. He did.
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Gloomy Sunday

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Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy Sunday

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Hungarian composer Rezső Seress dreamed of changing the world with his music. He did.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP, the "Blackout" episode. Today, we're featuring stories where darkness falls in some very strange ways. Now, there are songs that'll bring you to ecstasy, make you feel real joy. But there are songs of melody so intense, they inspire the most melancholy of emotions. A brief warning, this next story alludes to some mature content, so sensitive kiddies may want to sit this one out. Davey Kim has the story.

LASZLO MAROSI: I remember when I was 5, my dad was playing the piano in the next room from my bed, and I heard that beautiful melody that just touched me immediately. The next morning, I asked, what was that song that you were playing yesterday? And he said you're still a little one so please don't even think about - forget it. When you will be adult, it will be OK, but now it's not.

DAVEY KIM, BYLINE: That's Laszlo Marosi, a Hungarian music conductor. He's talking about a song composed by Rezso Seress in the early 1930s.

MAROSI: Rezso Seress was growing up in a very poor Jewish family in Hungary. But he didn't go to school to learn the piano. He himself just was sitting in front of the piano and would write and started to discover the keyboard what kind of sound is coming from what note.

KIM: There's not much known about Seress' early life except that he aspired to become a famous songwriter. So he did what other aspiring songwriters did - he moved to Paris.

MAROSI: Paintings, arts, theater - everything - Paris was the center. He had his girlfriend with him, so he thought that the doors of life are opening for him.

KIM: In Paris, Seress composed many songs, many of them now unheard of. He was trying to live the life of a big-time composer. But there was one problem - he was not a big-time composer.

MAROSI: Everyone thought, who is this amateur? He didn't really succeed in Paris. He did not succeed at all.

KIM: His girlfriend nagged him constantly, telling him to give up his dream, get a 9-to-5 job, but he wouldn't have it. Either he'd become a successful songwriter and change the world or he'd live out on the streets.

MAROSI: When she saw that he didn't become famous, he didn't get money, he didn't succeed the way how they expected, so she just said, OK, bye-bye.

KIM: And bye-bye went the love of his life. The day after their breakup, which happened to be a Sunday, Seress found himself alone in his apartment. Like the many fruitless times before, he started tapping away at the piano, trying to capture the emotions from the fresh breakup.

MAROSI: In that moment in that gloomy afternoon on that Sunday, a sad and mysterious melody started to appear in the mind of Seress.

KIM: Inspired by the melody, his poet friend helped him write the lyrics. They would call the song "Szomoru Vasarnap" - or "Gloomy Sunday."

MAROSI: The beginning of the song - a beautiful inviting dark sound with this ascending aperture of the minor chord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

MAROSI: Altogether, the melody, the phrasings, the text that he uses to describe his pain and his sadness is just so lovely. And it's a very sympathetic way he stated everything - no complaining, still offering the love. I know that she left me, I know this all, but please know that I love you forever and my love can't be stopped even if I'm dead. Don't close my eyes because my love will still go through my dead eyes. (Laughing) beautiful.

KIM: Seress went to many different publishers to try to get his song recorded. They all turned him down, saying that his song was just too emo. But finally, he got his break and it was recorded by the top Hungarian pop singer Pal Kalmar and many others. The rest is history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

PAL KALMAR: (Singing in foreign language).

MAROSI: The lowest level of society to the top, everyone loved that song, everyone was singing it. The radio played it in the '30s almost every day, everywhere where we went. There was no one social gathering that the "Gloomy Sunday" was not the song.

KIM: "Gloomy Sunday" resonated all around the world. People in England, Germany, France America - they were all singing it.

MAROSI: You will forget all your pain and you will be just sad, very sad, but it's a beautiful sadness and you can cry and those tears will clear your mind. It's beautiful. I love that.

KIM: Seress' dream of becoming famous had finally come true and perhaps now he could win back his girlfriend's love. But that's when it started to happen.

MAROSI: People started committing suicide.

KIM: There's a story of a Hungarian shoemaker who left a note at the scene his suicide quoting some of the "Gloomy Sunday" lyrics.

MAROSI: In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of the song's sheet music.

KIM: One man shot himself after telling relatives he couldn't get that song out of his head.

MAROSI: A woman in London overdosed listening to her records of the song skip over and over and over and over.

KIM: A young shopkeeper in Berlin hung herself in her apartment, the sheet music to "Gloomy Sunday" in her bedroom.

MAROSI: We don't even know the exact number because not everyone was discovered.

KIM: At least 19 suicides have been linked to the song, although many claim hundreds - we'll never know. Others say the Great Depression had a role in the deaths as well. Soon the song became widely known as the Hungarian Suicide Song and was banned on BBC Radio. When asked about his infamous song Seress said...

MAROSI: I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man. This fate of fame hurts me. 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.

KIM: So the story goes Seress tried finding his ex-lover who had inspired him to write "Gloomy Sunday." But to his horror, she too had taken her own life with poison.

MAROSI: And she had the music of "Gloomy Sunday" with her. Basically he, the composer, says that I'm ready to die for you because I love you so much. Even if you don't love me, I have to tell you that I love you more than you can imagine because I'm ready to die for you. And I think the girl killed herself. She demonstrated that she's the same as he stated in the text. It's a very, very good Shakespearean topic.

KIM: Many years later, after World War II and disappearing from the spotlight, a heartbroken Seress finally surrendered to the curse of his song. As proclaimed in the climax...

MAROSI: My heart and I have decided to end it all. He jumped out of his window of his apartment. But he survived. But while recovering in the hospital, he choked himself to death.

KIM: Was that really necessary?

MAROSI: Why do you think did he have a choice? If he wrote that song, this was the only way how he could demonstrate that he was serious. He wouldn't be faithful to himself if he wouldn't have done that. He needed to do that. And he knew that and he did.

KIM: Seress may now be dead but his song's haunting legacy lives on. "Gloomy Sunday" has been recorded over 80 times - covered by Billie Holiday to Elvis Costello to Bjork.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) With the last breath of my heart I'll be blessing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

BJORK: (Singing) Gloomy Sunday.

KIM: Although they've tacked on an extra verse to make the song PG. Apparently, the death mentioned in its lyrics was just a dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

BJORK: (Singing) I was only dreaming.

MAROSI: Oh, no. It's cheating. You can't say after Romeo and Juliet, oh, sorry I was just kidding. Wait a second. You were not kidding. It's part of the human life. You can't have everything happy. And he should come back and just tear those pages to pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOOMY SUNDAY")

BJORK: (Singing) I hope that my dream hasn't haunted you.

KIM: What about you? You, I mean, you're a Hungarian musician. What does this song mean for you?

MAROSI: So what it meant for me - something beautiful. This is that came to my mind - not the sadness, not the drama, but beautiful - beautifully sad. 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.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Lazslo Marosi for sharing that story. It was produced by our own Davey Kim.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Blackout" episode returns, someone's goose is about to be cooked. Don't go anywhere. SNAP JUDGMENT.

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