2019 week 37

September 12, 2019
Original score to “The suicide song”.

What is the link between Billie Holiday, The Simpsons, the BBC and a miniature statue in Budapest? This is the story of the pianist and composer Rezső Seress who wrote the song Gloomy Sunday (Szomorú vasárnap) often referred to as “the Hungarian suicide song”.

Rezső Seress was born as Rudolf (“Rudi”) Spitzer on the 3rd of November in 1899 in Budapest. In 1932 he was in Paris trying to get a brake as a composer. But to no avail. The constant refusals made him sad and depressed. And one morning in 1932 he sat down at his piano and 2 hours later Vége a világnak (End of the world) was completed.

 

Seress Rezső and his wife, Helen (Photo: szineszkonyvtar.hu)

He sent it to a publisher that answered him:  “There is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don’t think it would do anyone good to hear a song like that.” He had better luck with the second publisher who immediately bought the song. Soon after publication his friend the poet László Jávor visited him showing his own lyrics to the song. Lászlós girlfriend just broke up with him and in Szomorú vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday) the protagonist wants to commit suicide after his lover’s death. The first Hungarian recording with the title Szomorú vasárnap and Lászlós lyrics was made by Pál Kalmár in 1935.

In the following months there were at least 17 suicides that was linked to the song in Budapest, Vienna and Berlin.  When the number had risen to over 100 in Hungary the authorities banned public performance of the song. Now, there is nothing as good as publicity caused by tragedy. So in 1936 the song gained interest in America and was translated to English and recorded by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra with singer Johny Hauser.

One week after publication the notes of Gloomy Sunday was found by the New York police at a scene where a shop assistant had hung himself. Two days later a secretary who gased herself stated in a letter that she wanted Gloomy Sunday to be played at her funeral. Two people jumped out of skyscrapers. Both in close connection to the song, according to the police. Journalists started picking up stories in Europe and there were allegedly around 200 suicides caused by this “deadly” song.

The song went viral when Billie Holiday recorded it in 1941. But the BBC banned it immediately saying “it was detrimental to wartime morale”. The ban was lifted 2002! A lot of artists has recorded the song since. Among them Sinéad O’Connor, Sarah Brightman, Bjork, Kronos Quartet and Sarah Vaughan. In 2006 it appeared in an episode of The Simpsons and it is part of the soundtrack to Schindler’s list (1993). In my opinion this version with Bjork is outstanding.

Now where were Rudi in all of this? Considering the vast royalties his work had generated before the war he was a rich man. But he never left Hungary to collect them. During WWII he was sent by the nazis to a labour camp in Ukraine. He survived largely to the fact that a high ranking nazi officer recognised him as the writer of Gloomy Sunday. His mother didn’t survive the camps and that fact was defining for his long term mental health.

 

After the war he the worked in the theatre and the circus as a trapeze artist. He was injured and after that he devoted his time to songwriting. Because of the accident he had to learn to play the piano using only one hand. He got a job as a pianist at the restaurant Kispipa on Akácfa utca 38 between 1958-68. The place was a favourite hang-out for prostitutes, musicians, Bohemian spirits and the Jewish working class. At its hight the Kispipa was internationally known and Seress played his songs for Spencer Tracy, John Steinbeck and Ray Charles who dropped by when visiting Budapest.

Among the many songs he composed are Fizetek főúr (Waiter, bring me the bill), Én úgy szeretek részeg lenni (I love being drunk) and a song for the Hungarian Communist Party to commemorate the Chain Bridge crossing the river in Budapest, Újra a Lánchídon (On the Chain Bridge Again).  One question that I find interesting and haven’t found any good answer to is what happened to all his royalties? If someone knows anything about this I would be very grateful!

Fortepan/SZALAY ZOLTÁN. District VII. Dob utca 46/b 1966.

He suffered from depression and a constant struggle to make ends meet. He ended his life in 1968. He survived the jump from his apartment window but choked himself to death using a wire in the hospital. The building where he lived is still there.

The Kispipa restaurant can be found at Akácfa utca 3  in District VII. The original one disappeared a few years ago. But the new establishment is very well on terms with the historical and sentimental value of this historic place in Budapest. And a few week ago a mini statue was revealed honouring Rezső Seress by Guerilla-sculptor Mihály Kolodko. The guerrilla sculptures of Budapest will be another interesting topic!

On Saturday I had a very good outing to Dunakeszi. Maybe the last weekend with real summer temperatures which allowes outdoor dining. Dunakeszi is a lovely little place situated on the way to Göd. It has a very nice atmosphere and little beaches to the Danube. There are a promenade with restaurants and buffés. It’s quite busy with lots of families and cute dogs. It’s nice just to stroll close the Danube and listen to the silence on the more remote little beaches! Unfortunately there’s no easy way to reach the beach unless you have a car! But you can take a train to Dunakeszi from Budapest-Nyugati and then grab a taxi to the beach.

My Musical Landscape The Inner Wastes of Gewsgiumue is live on Spotify and other major streaming platforms! I’m composing piano pieces for POND5 at the moment and busy mixing my next music landscape The Dununma Sea.

 

Until next week!

Viszontlátásra!

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