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Why Does Every American Graduation Play ‘Pomp and Circumstance’?

The song was written for a British king’s coronation and its name is a Shakespeare reference. What gives?

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As thousands of American teens make the walk across a graduation stage this month, one thing is certain: “Pomp and Circumstance” will be played.

The marching song prompts instant recognition for many Americans, who have been hearing it played at graduations of all kinds as far back as the early 1900s. But “Pomp and Circumstance” is American by adoption, not by origin.

It was composed in 1901 by Edward Elgar, born on this day in 1857, and was used for the 1902 coronation of Britain’s Edward VII (the son of Queen Victoria who lent his name to the Edwardian age). The tune began its association with American graduations four years later at Yale University, when Elgar was given an honorary doctorate. Then, though, it was played as he walked offstage, not as he walked up to receive his diploma, according to NPR’s Morning Edition.

“After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it, the University of Chicago [and] Columbia,” 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, while it has also been used for graduations for so long that everybody knows what to expect when they hear it–just like robes and tasselled mortar boards create that 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," a reference to a passage from William Shakespeare's Othello.  In a scene that 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, and that 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, writes Christopher Woolf for Public Radio International, the king-to-be liked it so much that Elgar included it in a Coronation Ode performed at the royal crowning. English poet Arthur Benson provided lyrics, producing 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–rather than the United Kingdom–is competing, while 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?

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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