In 1932, Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress wrote a song based on the turmoils of the times: the Great Depression was in full swing, his native country was turning increasingly fascist, and even his adopted city (Paris) was feeling the threat of Nazi Germany.
And he may have been depressed.
When he tried to get it published, it proved difficult. As one potential reviewer 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.
However, he was able to find a publisher by the next year, and a lyricist as well. László Jávor, a friend and poet who had recently gone through a major break up, poured his pathos into Seress’ song, and came up with the following lines:
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 is Sunday,
With shadows I spend it all
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all
Soon there will be candles
And prayers that are said 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
László Jávor turned away from original Seress’ political lyrics, and instead poured out his heart, composing a lament for a dead loved one, and the protagonist’s subsequent suicide, with the promise of reunification in the afterlife.
In 1941, African-American Jazz virtuoso Billie Holiday recorded an English language version of the song; this is when the urban legends really started…
Because listening to Gloomy Sunday apparently can be a soundtrack to suicide.
So what about Monday?
In 1954, Smiley Lewis had something to say about that day, when he recorded Blue Monday.
Fats Domino scored a big hit when he covered it in 1956.
Finally, New Order recorded their own, original ode to the horrors of Mondays in 1983, which has also been subjected to multiple cover version.
However, the real tribute to Monday came in 2005, when a man named Cliff Arnall boldly crowned Monday the 18th of January as the most depressing day of that year.
We’ll leave out the facts surrounding Mr. Arnall (from dubious ties to academia to definite ties to airline companies) – he still came up with a fun equation:
His equation takes into account many factors: the weather, the amount of debt you’re in, how long it’s been since Christmas, the time it’s been since you failed on your New Year’s resolutions, how gloomy your motivation for change is, and how much you actually want to change.
Just reading that list makes for a blue day.
But he turned it into an equation, three times:
The first time, it looked like this (2005):
(C x R x ZZ)/ ((Tt +D) x ST)
The variables ran like this:
C = time spent on cultural activities, R = time spent relaxing, ZZ = time spent sleeping, Tt = travel time, D = delays, St = time spent in a state of stress.
The next iteration of his formula added the variables P and Pr:
P = time spent packing, Pr = time spent in preparation.
The resulting equation goes as follows:
(C x R x ZZ)/ ((Tt +D) x ST) + (P X Pr) > 400
Finally, in 2009, the equation realized its final form:
[W + (D – d)] x T ^ Q / M x Na
In this rendering, W = Weather, D = monthly salary, d = debt, T = the time since Christmas, Q = the time since failing New Year’s resolves, M = low motivation, and Na = the feeling to take activation.
All of this leads us to the Bluest Monday of all, which falls towards the end of January.
If the equation alone doesn’t make you gloomy, try reading it on a Sunday…
Back to Gloomy Sunday:
The song has been attributed to at least 19 suicides, many of which are hard to validate, save one…
In January, 1968, nearly 35 years after publishing Gloomy Sunday, composer Rezső Seress took his own life, first jumping out of his apartment window, and when that failed, strangling himself with a wire while being hospitalized.
He had refused to go to America to collect his royalties from Gloomy Sunday, instead staying in Hungary and playing piano at his favorite bar, which was frequented by artists, would-be-artists, and prostitutes.
However, regardless of his own work, and the questionable equations of Cliff Arnall…
Was it Sunday? Was it Monday?
No, it was just Thursday; January 11th, 1968 to be exact. This is how the New York Times summed it up:
…Seress, whose dirge-like song hit, “Gloomy Sunday” was blamed for touching off a wave of suicides during the nineteen-thirties, has ended his own life as a suicide it was learned today. 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.
In America, where Paul Robeson introduced an English version, some radio stations and nightclubs forbade its performance. 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.
The New York Times, January 13, 1968
So what’s the take-away?
Here’s Billie Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday: