A song, on occasion, can become inextricably linked with a place, even though it is not actually written about anywhere in particular. On a personal level, this can happen all the time - you hear a song and are immediately reminded of a place and moment . It can also enter the general consciousness, with a song recalling a location despite whoever is delivering it.
The example here is Gloomy Sunday, sometimes known as the ‘saddest song in the world’ and forever associated with Hungary and Budapest, a link strengthened by the 1999 film of the same name, a cinematic version of the story of the song against a backdrop of Nazi-occupied Budapest. It suits the crumbling grandeur of the city ,in many ways similar to Vienna and Paris, though the pockmarks of bullets in many buildings are a reminder of a more turbulent recent past. The mood also fits with the supposedly legendary Hungarian pessimism. (What is a pessimist? A realistic optimist)
The song has had dozens and dozens of vocal and instrumental versions since it was written in the early 1930’s . The perhaps best known one was by Billie Holiday but other English language versions have been as diverse as Paul Robeson, Bjork, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello , Marc Almond, Ray Charles, Sinead O’Connor, Acker Bilk, Rick Nelson, Heather Nova, Lydia Lunch and Sarah Brightman. However, partly because of the urban myths about Gloomy Sunday being responsible for a spate of suicides, the song itself has always been more important than its interpreters and has taken on a life of its own. Some of this is attributable to the success of American music publishers and record companies in originally marketing it as The Hungarian Suicide Song and releasing stories about those who had taken their lives after hearing it. It is also perhaps part of the long tradition of listeners trying to find magical powers or hidden messages in songs, with countless students damaging their records and styluses by trying to play their Beatles or Black Sabbath albums backwards. There is fact with some of the myths about Gloomy Sunday.It is true that the song was banned by the BBC - but then so was Joe Brown’s My Little Ukelele and the Cougar’s Saturday Nite at the Duckpond. It was also true that the song’s author committed suicide in 1968 - at the age of 78 and in poor health, a consequence of war -time experience in a German labour camp.
However ,what is more fascinating is how a song can change radically from its original source but retain its identity. The story of Gloomy Sunday is a particularly convoluted one. The original tune was composed by Rezso Seress (originally known as Rudi Spitzer), a self-taught pianist in Budapest who had written several songs now lost to history but with intriguing titles: Waiter, bring me the bill; Come On Dog Dimples; Hi, You Old Don Juan and I Like to be Drunk . He worked as resident pianist at a Budapest restaurant, Kispipa, then in the Jewish quarter on the Pest side, and played his new composition there, a melancholy melody in C-minor made even more mournful when played on the violin.
There is confusion about the original Hungarian lyrics. One view is that the first lyrics were by Seress–entitled The End of Love –and were about the decline of civilisation and threat of war, not unlike the general expression of pessimism by writers like Huxley and Wells at that time. It is possible, however, that these particular words were written later by Seress, during or after WW2. Whichever was true, the lyrics that became the ones known in Hungary were by the Hungarian poet Laszlo Javor, turning the piece into a morose and depressing lament of someone contemplating suicide after the death of their beloved. English translations of both these sets of lyrics can be seen at:
The transformation from the original was not yet complete. On reaching American music publishers, 2 separate pieces of English lyrics were then provided. One , by Desmond Carter, followed the sense of Javor’s Hungarian lyrics and was that used in the version done by Paul Robeson in 1935 and occasionally since.
However, the alternative set, by Sam Lewis (author of For All We Know), became the one generally known, popularised by Billie Holiday and used by most artists today. The words were fairly radically changed and, most significantly, an extra stanza was added to turn the whole thing into a dream, with a change of key in the melody to make the ending more uplifting.
This was presumably to make the song more palatable for public play on the radio and is a bit reminiscent of a college student in an English writing class extricating themselves from an improbably far-fetched story by ending it with ‘so, it was only a dream…’. However, in the right hands it can actually make it more haunting and blur dream and reality. 2 versions are given as links below, not particularly because they are the best but to give a sense of the alternate lyrics. The dramatic and ultra-dark interpretation by Diamonda Galas, once described as a mixture of Sylvia Plath and Maria Callas, goes back to the Paul Robeson version without the ‘dream’ ending and also uses a stark accompaniment of piano , the way it was composed. The other, by Sarah McLachlan, is the more common reading of it, with an evocative and haunting vocal over guitar background.
You can still find Kispipa, where Seress once played. Since those days, both Khrushchev and Ray Charles have dined there, aware of the song’s significance. The decor, posters, porcelain plates and menu - with literal English translations of dishes such as ‘crepes stuffed with brains’ - have remained unchanged for decades and the current pianist of 30 years or so residency there, sitting under a photograph of Seress, will play Gloomy Sunday if asked. The place itself, however didn’t seem gloomy at all. Like the song, the city - at the crossroads of east and west - has been constantly re-interpreted, from heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through Stalinism and beyond, but kept its distinctiveness. Perhaps the best way of listening to Gloomy Sunday and conjuring up Budapest is through the melody alone, with piano and violin - melancholy, sentimental, richly resonant of past histories.