Sunday's Gloomy
January 10, 2009 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Hungary may be the gloomiest country on earth. Believed by its people to be suffering from a centuries long curse, it's most famous modern musical export is probably the "Hungarian Suicide Song" - Gloomy Sunday. Originally popularized by Billie Holiday in the US (with an upbeat ending tacked onto the original lyrics), it's been covered dozens of times since then. Links to a few of my favorites inside: posted by empath (37 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
It's also inspired a movie and a play.
posted by empath at 9:59 PM on January 10, 2009

Just found a couple of blog posts about it here, including links to MP3s (which may or may not still be active.)

The Torture Garden
The Modern Music"
posted by empath at 10:08 PM on January 10, 2009

They're just sad because they have no word for sex.

And what abut Finns? I thought they were supposed to be the dourest nation of all. I demand rigidly defined ethnic stereotypes.

(Seriously, though, this is fascinating and I hadn't heard f it before.)
posted by hattifattener at 10:15 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Love this song. Diamanda Galas does a wonderful version.
posted by valkyrie at 10:24 PM on January 10, 2009

An odd combination that works (if you ignore the provided visuals): Peter Wolf with Adrian Belew on guitar.
posted by raysmj at 10:31 PM on January 10, 2009

And what abut (sic) Finns?

Finns and Hungarians are related linguistically and are thought to share genes from way back when -- this is often cited in theories about a genetic basis for suicide.

So there's your Finn fix. Happy now?
posted by grounded at 10:32 PM on January 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I first heard (and loved) the Venetian Snares version. I had no idea the song had such a rich history. Thanks for this!
posted by Hutch at 10:57 PM on January 10, 2009

Living in a suicide zone has got to suck during a worldwide market downturn.

While people in other countries are kicking themselves for not getting out of the market earlier, people in Hungary must be kicking themselves for not kicking off earlier.

(Timing is everything, you know...)
posted by markkraft at 11:27 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Finns and Hungarians are related linguistically and are thought to share genes from way back when -- this is often cited in theories about a genetic basis for suicide.

This is a pretty widely disputed thing; while most linguists recognize a connection between Hungarian and Finnish (and of course to a much closer relative of Finnish, Estonian), it's a fairly distant relationship.

Hungarian split from its closest relative around 3000 years ago, and this wouldn't have been what evolved into modern Finnish, but something like a predecessor to its two closer relatives, Mansi and Khanty. Today these are spoken very far away from Hungary, around the Ural Mountains in Russia. Comparisons are odious, but consider that your average English speaker would understand almost no Old English (spoken only around 1000 years ago), and you can imagine the startling *lack* of similarity between Hungarian and anything else.

This is a lengthy preamble to my main point: there's simply not much genetic connection between Finnish and Hungarian people. Before DNA testing, it was thought that that as much as one-eighth of the genes of these two peoples might be shared from the days they were one people (or something close to that.) But in recent years, that percentage is now thought to be less than 2% . . . at most. Over thousands of years, the speakers of Hungarian migrated all over the place, were conquered many times, conquered others many times and were privy to all sorts of intermarriages and intermingling with different peoples. So that genetic basis for suicide between Finns and Hungarians seems overwrought at best.

While characterizing a country as the "gloomiest" can be a presumptuous thing, it's hard not to see some truth in it after spending time in Hungary. Interestingly, I've also spent a lot of time with Hungarian-speakers from Romania, who are among the least gloomy and most outgoing and charming people I've ever met (if I had to stereotype them.) In the Székely and Csángó areas (these are two Hungarian speaking minorities in Romania), there just doesn't seem to be much trace of the Hungarian gloom, despite the difficulties both groups underwent in highly nationalistic Communist-era Romania. So I wonder why that might be.

Marianne Faithfull's version deserves notice, though I couldn't find a link. It's on her "A Perfect Stranger" anthology and works nicely with her creaky and weary voice. Scottish postpunk duo The Associates have an interesting take on it, too - a little disco-y. But the most interesting version is the rather desolate version by western swing band Charlie Adams & the Lone Star Playboys from the early 1950s. It's a sad, shuffling take with real pathos. I wish I could find a link to it; I have it on a Bear Family CD.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:24 AM on January 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

Another melancholy tune from Hungary that deserves mention: "Stop the War" by Speak the Hungarian Rapper.

I don't want a war, I just want a peace. Yee, c'mon
posted by First Post at 1:16 AM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

And what abut Finns? I thought they were supposed to be the dourest nation of all.

Suicide is looked down on by some Finns as it is considered a form of expressing one's emotions.

Did you hear about the Finn who really loved his wife? He loved her so much, he almost told her.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:28 AM on January 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Potentially appropriate post, as today (Sunday) also happens to be my birthday.
posted by deusdiabolus at 1:45 AM on January 11, 2009

Speaking as a third generation Hungarian-American with a large extended family in Budapest and Százhalombatta, I... um...

I'm to depressed to finish this comment.
posted by milquetoast at 2:57 AM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I live in Budapest... and in Hungarian literature, media, and discourse there is a sense of pessimism expressed openly about nearly every topic. It was explained to me that pessismism is realistic, and people simply think expressing an attitude of "look on the bright side of things" as annoyingly naive and shallow. Negativity is, in a sense, poetic, and optimism is silly. There are lots of local sayings about this: whereas an American says "the situation is serious, but not hopeless" a Hungarian would say "The situation is hopeless, but not serious."

My guess is the pessimissm trait is instilled by the education system, which would expalin Dee Xtrovert's observation about Transylvanian Hungarians, with which I agree. They don't go through the Hungarian education system.

Incidentally, Rezső Seress, the composer of Gloomy Sunday, commited suicide himself. He was an interesting character: he almost never left his home district in Pest (the 7th and 8th districts) and was never known to have visited Buda at all. He was remembered as one of the physically unattractive men in Budapest, while his wife was considered to be one of the most beautiful woman of her time.

There is a plaque on the wall of the Kulács Restaurant on Dohany street commorating it as the place where Seress composed the song. In fact, it was composed on nearby Akácfa utca where the present Kis Pipa restuarant is today. Back in the 1970s when the city council decided to put up a plaque the Kis Pipa had degenerated into a pretty rough worker's bar, so the nearby Kulács was chosen instead.

Hungarian is in the same macro-family as Finnish, but not close enough to make it either comprehensible or even easier to learn. Khanty, however, shows a much closer relationship with Hungarian.
posted by zaelic at 3:40 AM on January 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

Fascinating stuff. I remember when I worked for the British government going to a meeting with a middle-ranking official at the Hungarian embassy in London. We were served Tokay at 11 in the morning, and that (and the general friendliness and hospitality of the mission as a whole) really left an impression.

I'm half-Polish and I heard from the diplomat (and from others since) about a fellow-feeling between Poles and Hungarians, but I'm not sure how true that is. The Poles certainly have a very distinctive outlook on life, but not from my experience as pessimistic as the Hungarians.
posted by athenian at 3:48 AM on January 11, 2009

I now understand Cleveland, much, much better.
posted by sciurus at 5:01 AM on January 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Let me say two things:
1. Any Billie Holiday song makes me want to commit suicide. The woman's hatred of music and singing is so powerful as to drain all joy from life the moment she opens her mouth.

2. Speaking as an ethnic Hungarian, I personally am a hap-hap-happy fellow, and have always been so.
posted by shambles at 6:05 AM on January 11, 2009

The lyrics in your Hungarian version are completely different from the ones linked in the post. I went looking for another Hungarian version and found this; then I turned up another (complete with suicide!) from a movie apparently based on the song (which also includes a short German version), but they both have the alternate lyrics, which I found here. As a public service, I'll reproduce them (and a translation based on them):
Szomorú vasárnap száz fehér virággal
vártalak kedvesem templomi imával.
Álmokat kergetõ vasárnap délelõtt,
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 féj a szememtõl, holtan is áldalak...

Utolsó vasárnap.

Gloomy Sunday, with hundred white flowers
in the chapel, beloved one, I waited in prayer.
That sunday morning, my dreams were chasing.
Yet the chariot of my sorrow came back without you.
Forever since then are so sad all my sundays -
tears are my drink, and the bread I eat sorrow.

Gloomy Sunday.

On my last Sunday, belovéd, oh come to me!
There'll be a priest too, a coffin, a catafalque, a shroud.
Also then, flowers will await you, flowers - and a coffin.
Beneath flowering trees, I will take my last ride.
And my eyes open wide for a last glance upon you.
Don't be scared of my eyes, still in death I will bless you...

Last Sunday.
I can't seem to find a sung version with the original (?) lyrics from the post, which are much more interesting (and gloomier) than the drippy lovelorn version.

Oh, nice post!
posted by languagehat at 6:10 AM on January 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

The woman's hatred of music and singing is so powerful as to drain all joy from life the moment she opens her mouth.

shambles, I suspect you have a hearing disorder. Please consult an otologist at your earliest available opportunity.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:32 AM on January 11, 2009

*cough* Sarah McLachlan.

Also one of my favourite covers that she's done.

posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:33 AM on January 11, 2009

I thought Moldova held the title of gloomiest nation... but I've heard that title also go to Scandinavian countries, Scotland, Russia, The Czech Republic etc. etc. Having recently fled Finland to visit Hungary I can tell you Hungary made me feel much much much less gloomy because
1. the food haz a flavor!

I think I got a tan. Plus Budapest is beautiful and if you are coming from other parts of Europe, it's also quite cheap. And the food...oh lord, coming from a place where dishes include Mämmi and Salmiakii, the Hungarian flavors of paprika, sour cherries, roast pork, goose liver, and poppy seeds were heaven-sent. I had heard of the theory that the two cultures were related, but if I hadn't I never would have guessed in a million years.
posted by melissam at 7:52 AM on January 11, 2009

Ernie Kovacs was Hungary, but, if he made you want to kill yourself, it was with hilarity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:59 AM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Paul fucking Robeson!
posted by kenko at 9:05 AM on January 11, 2009

The first one I heard was the bjork version. When someone heard I liked it they showed me the Venetian Snares version. Now Venetian Snares is my top played artist on
posted by azarbayejani at 9:27 AM on January 11, 2009

Re: Finns
You'd be suicidal too if every word you wrote contained that many vowels and umlauts.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2009

Ah here is the original.
posted by empath at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2009

Half Hungarian, here, with lots of history and family history of depression-- interesting about the Finn thing being mainly debunked, I had read a bunch of research on that a while back and thought it was pretty solid. Of course, sharing only 2% of genes might still matter, if they are the ones that give risk for depression... I'd like to see more on that.

I've often wondered if the Hungarian-Jewish math gene was linked to the depression gene ;-)
posted by Maias at 10:52 AM on January 11, 2009

Sounds like a Leonard Cohen song
posted by wheelieman at 11:05 AM on January 11, 2009

Bjork is awesome.
posted by bjork24 at 11:50 AM on January 11, 2009

Ah here is the original.

That's the same alternate (?) version with all the flowers that every other Hungarian-language link in the thread has. I'm still hoping to find one with what the "original lyrics" link calls the original lyrics ("The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning/ Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music/ Meadows are coloured red with human blood/ There are dead people on the streets everywhere..."). Of course, that may be wrong, but the page looks so authoritative!
posted by languagehat at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2009

@ [expletive deleted]

Nice quote There is a German joke about the Fins:
Two fins are sitting in a bar and drinking beer. One takes his beer and say "Skol!". The other says:"Are we here to drink or to talk?"
posted by yoyo_nyc at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2009

Funny thing is that here in Hungary I hardly ever hear the song played at all. There are so many gloomy "nota" (popular songs) about lost love that that particular one doesn't even stand out.

The writer Ferenc Molnar used to say "I am a pessimist because, in the end, the pessimists are always right."

Another Hungarian saying: The Hungarian pessimist says "Things can not possibly get worse." The Hungarian optimist says "Yes, they can!"
posted by zaelic at 2:04 PM on January 11, 2009

I actually expected a bunch of Hungarians to complain about hateful stereotypes and how they really aren't very gloomy at all.
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on January 11, 2009

Wow, I never knew that VSnares track was a version of Gloomy Sunday. I've heard of Gloomy Sunday since forever, the legendary suicide song, etc. but had never actually heard the original song until now. Cool post, and informative too.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:23 PM on January 11, 2009

Only Hungarian I knew personally seemed more exasperated than anything else.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:57 PM on January 11, 2009

Dour kinda place, Budapest.

On the surface, anyway.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:04 PM on January 11, 2009

kaoru abe covered it once, it can be found on soulseek

discogs came up with alot
posted by sponge at 6:20 AM on January 12, 2009

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