Why does every American graduation play "Pomp and Circumstance"?
Thousands of American teens make the walk. They walk across a stage. It happens every year. It is for graduation. One thing is certain. “Pomp and Circumstance” will be played.
The marching song prompts instant recognition. That's for many Americans. They've heard it played at graduations. They've heard it as far back as the early 1900s. But “Pomp and Circumstance” is American by adoption. It is not American by origin.
It was composed in 1901 It was composed by Edward Elgar. He was born in 1857. “Pomp and Circumstance” was used for a 1902 coronation. It was for Britain’s Edward VII. He was the son of Queen Victoria. He lent his name to the Edwardian age. The tune began its association with American graduations four years later. That happened at Yale University. That's when Elgar was given an honorary doctorate. It was played as he walked offstage. It was not played as he walked up to get his diploma. That's according to NPR’s Morning Edition.
“After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it. So did the University of Chicago [and] Columbia.” That's according to Miles Hoffman. That's what he told NPR. He is a music expert.
“Then eventually… everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to.”
Kimberly Sena Moore wrote for Psychology Today. She noted that there are reasons for the cultural foothold of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Its “regal melody, warm tone colors, and stately… tempo” set an “emotional tone,” she writes.
It has been used for graduations for a long time. It's been used so long that everybody knows what to expect when they hear it. It is just like robes. And it is like the tasseled mortar boards. They create an expectation.
There’s more to the tradition's British roots besides its debut at Edward VII's coronation. The riff played by school bands across the country is just a section. It comes from the first of Elgar's six "Pomp and Circumstance Marches." They are a reference to a passage. It is from William Shakespeare's Othello. There is a scene. It takes place in the castle garden. Othello tells Iago that he has lost faith in his wife. Her name is Desdemona. He has just admitted that he's lost the mental peace of being a simple soldier forever. Desdemona's perceived unfaithfulness has ruined his life:
"Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone."
The king-to-be liked Elgar's song a lot. This came after he heard it performed in 1901. He like it so much that Elgar included it in a Coronation Ode. It was performed at the royal crowning. That's according to Christopher Woolf. He was writing for Public Radio International. Arthur Benson provided lyrics. He was an English poet. This produced the song "Land of Hope and Glory." It shares the melody that Americans hear today at graduation ceremonies:
"Land of Hope and Glory
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee
who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
make thee mightier yet!"
The song is still a favorite in England. That's according to Woolf. Some sports teams play it at events. They play it where the island nation is competing. Some citizens have lobbied to have it replace “God Save the Queen.” They want it to be the national anthem of England.
Its use at graduations is an all-American tradition. That's according to Woolf.
But maybe the Americans are on to something. Elgar himself described the song as "a tune that comes once in a lifetime." What better song to mark a graduate's moment of achievement?