Why does every American graduation play "Pomp and Circumstance"?
Thousands of American teens make the 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 for many Americans. They have been hearing it played at graduations of all kinds. They've heard it as far back as the early 1900s. But “Pomp and Circumstance” is American by adoption and not American by origin.
It was composed in 1901 by Edward Elgar. He was born in 1857. “Pomp and Circumstance” was used for the 1902 coronation of 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 at Yale University. That's when Elgar was given an honorary doctorate. It was played as he walked offstage and 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 what music expert Miles Hoffman told NPR.
“Then eventually… everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to.”
Writing for Psychology Today, Kimberly Sena Moore notes 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 so long that everybody knows what to expect when they hear it. It is just like robes. And it is like 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 from the first of Elgar's six "Pomp and Circumstance Marches" They are a reference to a passage from William Shakespeare. It's from Othello. The scene takes place in the castle garden. Othello tells Iago that he has lost faith in his wife, 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."
After hearing Elgar's march performed in 1901, the king-to-be liked it so much that Elgar included it in a Coronation Ode. It was performed at the royal crowning. That's according to Christopher Woolf writing for Public Radio International. English poet Arthur Benson provided lyrics. This produced the song "Land of Hope and Glory" that 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!"
In England, the song is still a favorite, Woolf writes. Some sports teams play it at events where the island nation is competing. Some citizens have lobbied to have it replace “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem of England.
Its use at graduations is an all-American tradition, Woolf writes.
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?