“Pomp and Circumstance” is almost as much of a graduation standard as “Here Comes the Bride” is for weddings. If you have ever been in a commencement day exercise or part of a graduation audience you have undoubtedly heard and perhaps can hum even now the main theme of this graduation classic. As a grammar school and then high school musician I had the experience of playing the piece with my school band for a half dozen years before I heard it played for me at my own graduation. Hearing it played again at my own children’s graduations was a heartfelt experience.
It’s been more than one hundred years since “Pomp and Circumstance” was first played in the United States. Curiously enough the tune, while popular here for more than a century, came to us as pure gift from the composing hand of Sir Edward Elgar, a British composer of note. While his works were known and played by orchestras in the U. S. for some time, it was not until 1905 that Sir Edward made the trip across the Atlantic and for the first time heard his “Pomp and Circumstance” played at a college graduation.
Leave it to the Ivy League to distinguish itself by inviting Elgar to receive an honorary degree in music at one of its commencement ceremonies Yale University bestowed the Yale hood on Elgar, who perhaps enjoyed even more the fact that “Pomp and Circumstance” was played as the recessional for the departing Yale graduates. Not wanting to be outdone and perhaps recognizing the evocative power of Elgar’s theme, several other universities including Rutgers, Columbia and Princeton began using Pomp and Circumstance for their commencement ceremonies during the next few years. A star was born. From then until now, with no end in sight, Pomp and Circumstance has been the processional and recessional of choice by American high schoos and colleges.
So what is it about Pomp and Circumstance that reverberates so effectively with audiences and participants of commencement activities. The key to understanding the appeal of this number may be an open secret announced by its title. When you hear the melody you recognize most definitely two distinct aspects of what happens at every graduation whether at the smallest high school or the larges university. When we see a group of young people gathered to gether in caps and gowns being handed documents that bear witness to their academic achievement their is surely a sense of grand accomplishment. Students have worked hard and brought themselves to a new level of learning that calls for public recognition. We hear this in the “pomp” aspect of the piece.
But at every graduation there is also an underlying sense of melancholy. As much as there is a great happiness at completing high school program of studies or receiving a Bachelor’s Degree from college every person present senses that change is about to happen. These students won’t be back at this school again next year. It is time for them to move on. Circumstances, as it were, have changed. Friends look at one another knowing that while they will always share wonderful memories things will never again be the same.
Somehow Edward Elgar was able to blend these two themes, the excitement of accomplishment and completion with the tender almost bittersweet tone of parting and moving on. In the melody, the instrumentation and rhythm of Pomp and Circumstance we hear and feel the themes of living – the Pomp and the Circumstance .