Jargon Genesis: Pomp and Circumstance

With commencement ceremonies for the university taking place last weekend, it got us thinking about the genesis of some of the traditions that take place at graduations around the world. Many of you had the distinct honor of walking down an aisle, mortarboard on head, participating in a ceremony to commemorate the attainment of your UST graduate business degree. In this proud moment you were comforted by the tones of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1.” (The part we all recognize comes in at about 1:51.)

If you grew up in the United States, you heard this song for your undergraduate, high school, 8th grade, and possibly even your kindergarten or pre-school graduation ceremony. So where did this piece come from, and how has it become so engrained in our commencement culture? Allow me to illuminate your minds on the subject.

Elgar glibly borrowed from Shakespeare for the title of this work. In Othello, Act III, Scene III, Shakespeare wrote, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!"

The first march was played at the coronation of King Edward VII, and it wasn’t until 1905, three years later, that it was connected with a graduation ceremony. Elgar was invited to Yale to accept an honorary doctorate and to conduct his own music. At that ceremony, his March No. 1 was played as a recessional to the proceedings.

Before long Princeton, then Chicago, then Columbia followed suit, and somehow, this led to a nation-wide tradition of “Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1” becoming better known as “The Graduation March.”

If you listen to the song in the video above, you'll notice there are lyrics to the march, though they have nothing to do with graduation.

And what of marches 2-6 from Elgar’s composition? What did they do to deserve back seat to No. 1? Well, March No. 2 and March No. 3 are perhaps discriminated against because they are set in minor keys. That, and because the A and C sections in both marches might induce grandparents to cover their ears at the ruckus rather than shed tears of pride.

I understand not using March No. 6. If I were a cartoonist, I would utilize the A and C sections of this march as background for the introduction of the “bad guy,” reinforcing the severity of his villainy. As commencement is intended to be celebratory in nature, demonizing music would be inappropriate.

I say March No. 4, however, deserves a fair shot! It is equally regal to March No. 1, with a soothing B section, and it is far less conformist. Must we always follow the Ivy League schools? Why don’t we start a Holly League of schools, where we have the audacity to use Elgar’s March No. 4 from “Pomp and Circumstance” in our commencement ceremonies?

Or how about we use March No. 5 and have our graduates gallop down the aisle, occasionally leaping for joy, in time with the punctuation of the music, of course. Then again, the B section on this one sounds rather like it ought to be played at the end of a movie akin to “The Sound of Music.” I can just see the credits rolling.

Well, for this year, we stuck with March No. 1, and we wish our graduates a great celebration and all the happiness in this new stage of life!