Writer’s Block: Pomp and circumstance

Graduation is just around the corner. Graduation ceremonies at college/universities typically take place in mid-May these days, while high schools have their commencement exercises in early June, a few as soon as late May.

Peter Bodley
Peter Bodley

Common to almost all high school graduation programs and some colleges/universities, too, is the music for the processional when all the graduating students march into the auditorium, if the ceremony indoors, or the stadium if outdoors. The commencement program typically will state, “Pomp and Circumstance,” Elgar arranged by Key.

When I attended my first high school graduation in June 1970 after coming to the U.S. from the U.K., I was very surprised that I recognized the music for the processional played by the high school band – in my high school days in England, there were no graduation ceremonies; you just left school, whether it be age 16 or 18. The music was familiar to me and I could not imagine why it would be played at a high school graduation in the United States.

The processional uses a segment from “Pomp and Circumstance March, No. 1,” a quintessential English piece of music, which was composed by English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) in 1901. Elgar wrote six “Pomp and Circumstance” marches in the early 1900s, but “No. 1” is certainly the most well-known and also the most played, not just because of the fact that a segment of it is part and parcel of an American high school tradition, but also because it is very much part of the fabric of British culture.

That’s because the march is always played at the last night of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Proms (Promenade), an eight-week summer music festival of daily classical music concerts in London which began in 1895. More than 100 concerts, featuring orchestras and ensembles from all over the world – the Minnesota Orchestra has performed on more than one occasion – take place in what has been called the largest music festival in the world, culminating in the “Last Night at the Proms” the second Saturday in the September which features the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a program whose second half is always devoted to patriotic British music.

“Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” fits into that category because words that were added to Elgar’s score a year after he wrote the march transformed the piece into “Land of Hope and Glory,” which would be akin to “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful” in this country.

Elgar originally wrote the first two “Pomp and Circumstance” marches for the Liverpool Orchestral Society, which gave the premieres Oct. 19, 1901, then they were played two days later at a London Promenade Concert – the BBC took over the concert festival in 1925 – where, according to reports, “No. 1” received a double encore because of favorable audience reaction.

The words were added in 1902 and the march became “Land of Hope and Glory” so that it could be used as part of the “Coronation Ode” for King Edward VII, who had just succeeded to the throne of the U.K. after the death of his mother, Queen Victoria.

How “Pomp and Circumstance” found its way to the American graduation tradition can be traced to 1905 when the professor of music at Yale University, Samuel Sanford, invited Elgar, a friend of his, to attend Yale’s commencement that June to receive an honorary doctorate of music.

According to the Wikipedia website, Sanford arranged for an Elgar oratorio to be performed by a symphony orchestra and choir, but also as the graduates and college officials marched in for the graduation ceremony, the orchestra played Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.” The tradition was born.

What is heard at commencement exercises is the arrangement of the slow, very melodic part of the piece, which is called the “trio,” but that section is bridged by a march, which is both powerful and fast moving.

Indeed, when heard in its entirety, with or without words, “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” which is only six minutes long, grabs one’s attention and does not let go.