The original lyrics were titled "Vége a világnak" (The world is ending) and were about despair caused by war, ending in a quiet prayer about people's sins. Poet László Jávor wrote his own lyrics to the song, titled Szomorú vasárnap (Sad Sunday), in which the protagonist wants to commit suicide following his lover's death. The latter lyrics ended up becoming more popular while the former were essentially forgotten. The song was first recorded in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár in 1935.
"Gloomy Sunday" was first recorded in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis, and was recorded the same year by Paul Robeson, with lyrics by Desmond Carter. It became well known throughout much of the English-speaking world after the release of a version by Billie Holiday in 1941. Lewis's lyrics referred to suicide, and the record label described it as the "Hungarian Suicide Song". There is a recurring urban legend which claims that many people have committed suicide while listening to this song.
The song was composed by Rezs? Seress while living in Paris, in an attempt to become established as a songwriter in late 1932. The original musical composition was a piano melody in C-minor, with the lyrics being sung over it. Seress wrote the song at the time of the Great Depression and increasing fascist influence in the writer's native Hungary, although sources differ as to the degree to which his song was motivated by personal melancholy rather than concerns about the future of the world. The basis of Seress's lyrics is a reproach to the injustices of man, with a prayer to God to have mercy on the modern world and the people who perpetrate evil. There are some suggestions that the words of "Vége a világnak" were in fact not written until World War II itself and not copyrighted until 1946.
Seress initially had difficulty finding a publisher, mainly due to the unusually melancholy nature of the song. One potential publisher 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.
The song was published as sheet music in late 1933, with lyrics by poet László Jávor, who was inspired by a recent break-up with his fiancée. According to most sources, Jávor rewrote the lyrics after the song's first publication, although he is sometimes described as the original writer of its words. His lyrics contained no political sentiments, but rather were a lament for the death of a beloved and a pledge to meet with the lover again in the afterlife. This version of the song became the best known, and most later rewritings are based around the idea of lost love.
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'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
Some English versions add the following verse:
Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep
In the deep of my heart, dear
Darling I hope
That my dream never haunted you
My heart is tellin' you
How much I wanted you
There have been several urban legends regarding the song over the years, mostly involving it being allegedly connected with various numbers of suicides, and radio networks reacting by purportedly banning the song. However, most of these claims are unsubstantiated.
Press reports in the 1930s associated at least 19 suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with "Gloomy Sunday", but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty, as well as the rise of Nazi Germany's influence in Europe. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide.
In January 1968, about 35 years after writing the song, its composer did take his own life.
The BBC banned Billie Holiday's version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC's ban was lifted by 2002.
The song's notoriety contributed towards many other notable artists later recording the song, including:
The song's lyrics are featured in the bridge of the Dead Milkmen song "Blood Orgy of the Atomic Fern."
The song inspired the 2006 movie The Kovak Box, in which a writer is trapped on the island of Mallorca with people who are injected with a microchip that causes them to take their own lives when they hear "Gloomy Sunday". The song plays during the movie, sung by the actress Lucía Jiménez. A music video from the cover was released as part of the movie promotion. The song also features on the soundtrack of Wristcutters: A Love Story, performed by Artie Shaw.
Lyrics available for Seress' Vege a Vilagnak and Javor's Szomoru Vasarnap