Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Hungarian Suicide Song

The symbolic face of death:  detail from an 18...

Image via Wikipedia

From time to time, while faffing about in YouTube usually, I find myself taking an interest in the various cover versions of well-known songs, starting long ago with all the versions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which has now been crowned by none other than Simon Cowell, who made all the finalists in the latest season of the British X-Factor record the song.

You’re taking your life in your hands exploring the many versions that exist of Gloomy Sunday, the song originally known as Szomorú vasárnap, and now widely known as the Hungarian Suicide Song.

Legend has it that the song is closely associated with suicide, and some extremists will even go so far as to promise you too will commit suicide shortly after listening. Well, I’m still here, so maybe there’s not much to that theory.

The composer of the song, Rezső Seress, did in fact kill himself, but he took 35 years to get round to it (the song was set to music in 1933, and he died in 1968) so it’s a little hard to show causation there. Billy McKenzie, meanwhile, the lead singer of Scottish band The Associates, also committed suicide (in 1997) after (15 years after) recording a cover version of the song. As far as the rest of the claims are concerned, we’re dealing with the vaguest of allegations – something the Internet loves more than anything else.

But more of that later. Let’s go back to the start.

Seress, real name Spitzer, was a pianist and composer. If you want more than that on him, you’re going to have to learn Hungarian, because the Magyar page of Wikipedia has a great deal more information than any other. The only other English sources on Google refer to the song, which was written in 1933 at the request of the poet László Jávor, who’s so famous not even Magyar Wikipedia has a page on him.

The Hungarian lyrics go like this:

Szomorú vasárnap száz fehér virággal
Vártalak kedvesem templomi imával
Álmokat kergető vasárnap délelőtt
Bánatom hintaja nélküled visszajött
Azóta szomorú mindig a vasárnap
Könny csak az italom kenyerem a bánat...

Szomorú vasárnap

Utolsó vasárnap kedvesem gyere el
Pap is lesz, koporsó, ravatal, gyászlepel
Akkor is virág vár, virág és - koporsó
Virágos fák alatt utam az utolsó
Nyitva lesz szemem hogy még egyszer lássalak
Ne félj a szememtől holtan is áldalak...

Utolsó vasárnap

Which translated literally look like this:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

(I’m indebted to the website www.phespirit.info for this information.)

Nota bene those two verses. That’s about to change.

The song first came to prominence in the English-speaking world in 1936, when a translation by Desmond Carter was recorded by Paul Robeson. It looked like this:

Sadly one Sunday I waited and waited
With flowers in my arms for the dream I'd created
I waited 'til dreams, like my heart, were all broken
The flowers were all dead and the words were unspoken
The grief that I knew was beyond all consoling
The beat of my heart was a bell that was tolling

Saddest of Sundays

Then came a Sunday when you came to find me
They bore me to church and I left you behind me
My eyes could not see one I wanted to love me
The earth and the flowers are forever above me
The bell tolled for me and the wind whispered, "Never!"
But you I have loved and I bless you forever

Last of all Sundays

The Carter version takes a few liberties with the original, mainly in the fact that the narrator doesn’t himself die. This version is now only performed, as far as I can make out, by Diamanda Galas.

Then came a new version (we can probably assume that Tin Pan Alley was full of Hungarian emigrés by this time, who would have been familiar with the original) by Sam Lewis. Here’s what Lewis made of the song:

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

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you

Gloomy Sunday

Lewis, as you can see, has not only retained the idea of the narrator’s own death from the original, he has in fact made it a suicide, which is not openly stated in the original. That line, Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?, was responsible for the song, as sung by Billie Holliday, being banned by the BBC, and is surely behind the legend that has built up around the song ever since.

However, Lewis was also responsible for the atrocity that is the third verse, in which the whole death thing is revealed as a dream, with the beloved restored safe and sound by the lover’s side, and the whole gloomy message no more than a sort of Thanatised expression of longing.

Ghastly as that misrepresentation may be, it’s the version that’s been carried down to today by the likes of Elvis Costello, The Associates, Marianne Faithfull, Sinéad O’Connor, Sarah McLachlan, Bjork, Portishead and Sarah Brightman. The Lewis lyrics, but without the damnable third verse, were also recorded by Lydia Lunch and Gitane Demone. Links in this paragraph lead to YouTube videos of the performers concerned.

The myth of the link to suicides, meanwhile, is dealt with by Snopes here. In all likelihood the song was somehow linked to several suicides (suicides are melodramatic events, let’s face it, and I’m sure less apt lyrics have been quoted by the departed in notes etc) and the legend was carried on in the West, influenced by Hungary’s apparent reputation for a high suicide rate.

I wasn’t aware of that reputation, and so I checked some recent figures, and sure enough Hungary comes fifth in a WHO list, with 26 suicides per 100,000 population in 2005, behind Lithuania, Belarus, Russia and Slovenia. Put another way, that’s about seven suicides a day. That compares to 6.8 in the UK, and 11 in the US. It also compares to 21.1 in Belgium, which translates to seven suicides a day. For a theory as to why Hungary might be more suicidal than other nations, see this article taken from the now-defunct Hungary Report Monthly Digest. Excerpt:

Gloom, depression and suicide seem to be part and parcel of Hungarian culture. "You can hardly meet with a Hungarian who wouldn't have relatives or friends who really committed suicide - it's a kind of national disease, it's a kind of sickness," says Peter Muller, a Hungarian playwright who has written a play about Gloomy Sunday and has studied the suicide phenomenon.


But the Gloomy Sunday playwright Peter Muller thinks that there is more to the Hungarian gloom that just frustrated aspirations. The real reasons go much deeper, he says. It is essentially a problem of identity. "Somehow the root is missing. We live in a very strange position of the world. We always try to stick to the Western culture, we try to escape from the Eastern mentality and somehow we are in a limbo, we don't belong to anybody, it's a kind of loneliness. We have somehow lost our Oriental roots without finding another one - and if you are in trouble, if your life is difficult it is the root that can save you."

I’ll leave that for any Hungarian readers (I know we have at least one) to comment on.

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