Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1

As we approach the end of May, a familiar ritual begins to occur throughout the United States.  Young men and women, clad in polyester robes will don cardboard hats that will only be worn once.  These youngsters will be shuffled into gymnasiums, auditoriums, amphitheaters, and football stadiums in front of thousands of their friends and families.  There is a familiar custom, one in which everyone participates, though I suspect few actually understand it.  As these newly christened adults are seated, almost invariably they will all be treated to an overly lengthy (and repetitive) performance of the trio section of a 100-year-old British march, originally written for orchestra by a man named Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

It is a curious affair, one that I reckon that most people sitting in the bleachers don't spend too much of their time thinking about it. Your atypical graduation attendee has a sole purpose in mind.  They want to see their young charge walk across the stage and shake hands with a small group of dignitaries.  They can't be bothered to consider the important musical history being recognized at that moment.  However, being a veteran of many more of these ceremonies than I care to recall, I have noticed there are two types of people that usually attend.

People with air horns, and people without air horns.

If you have not attended a commencement ceremony recently, I should warn you that decorum has seemingly evaporated as an expected protocol.  You may have noticed articles in the media concerning school districts banning specific outbursts from audience members or articles opining the lack of respect some people display at such events.  Some students have even been denied their diplomas for the egregious behavior of their own friends and family.  I'll leave the decision of appropriateness to you to decide.  What we'll focus on here is the quaint little bit of British-ness that remains a centerpiece in the American version of this ceremony.

It was summertime in Connecticut in the year 1905.  Edward Elgar had seen a groundswell of popularity in the United States following several successful performances of his works.  He had already become a household name in England, having slowly accumulated popularity and sealing his name in the annals of history with his "Engima Variations".  Elgar and his wife, Alice, had worked incredibly hard over the past two decades to bring his craft to the forefront of the music scene.  They had moved to London, moved back to Worchestershire after experiencing tepid success, Alice's family denounced her for marrying a musician, and they listened to music constantly.  Sometimes taking in 3 or 4 performances per week (remember, this is pre-iPod so you actually had to go somewhere to hear music).  As a result, Elgar's palette tends to adopt a large swath of European styles of the late Romantic.  Despite this broad acculturation, Elgar was considered by his own people as quintessentially British.

Could anyone possibly be more British than this?

So, where does the graduation march come into play?  Well, what most of us recognize as Pomp and Circumstance is only half the story.  The melody does indeed come from Elgar's 1st Pomp and Circumstance Military March in D major.  The title itself comes from Shakespeare's Othello"

"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!"

The interesting bit comes when we examine the march closer, the portion that is almost unanimously adopted as the graduation processional is only the trio section of the march, a smallish bit in the middle.  After its publication, several of Elgar's friends commented that the melody of the trio would be able to stand as its own work. A short time later, he arranged it as a standalone work and it was set to words by the author and poet, A. C. Benson.  It came to be known as "The Land of Hope and Glory", and in some circles it's considered as sacred as "God Save the Queen."

How it came to its place in American academia is another story.  Elgar had an American friend, Samuel Sanford, who was the professor of Applied Music at Yale university.  He convinced Elgar to come visit him and eventually arranged for him to be the recipient of an honorary doctorate of music from Yale the summer of 1905.  The ceremony honored several big names in America at the time, but Elgar was definitely considered the main attraction.  The publication, Yale Alumni Weekly, later reported that, "...his name was received with unusual demonstration."  

I'm sure that it was overwhelming...

So as the ceremony came to an end, the last piece of music the orchestra performed was Elgar's March No. 1.  In the coming years, other ivy-league schools began to adopt the practice of performing the march and as time wore on, it was cropped to just the trio and expanded across the country as the expected custom at commencement ceremonies, taking America by storm.

Much like Britain's final attempt to regain control of the colonists.

Our listening example comes today from the master himself.  The film comes from the inaugural recording session at the Abbey Road Studios in London (yes, the very same studio in which the Beatles recorded and the street upon which they are crossing above) where Edward Elgar himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in playing the trio from Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.  As he takes the podium, you may notice the string players tapping their bows on the edge of their music stands.  This is a traditional sign of respect and admiration.  As he prepares to begin, Elgar addresses the musicians as such:

"Good morning gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light program this morning. Please play this tune as though you've never heard it before."

Homework: Free write this week!  Write about whatever comes to mind.

See you next Friday.


Photo of Yale student is from the New Haven Register, New Haven, CT.
Photo of Prince Harry is from TIME magazine.
Photo the Beatles from their album, Abbey Road is believed to belong to the label, Apple (Parlophone)/EMI, or the graphic artist(s), Iain Macmillan.