Every year, thousands of American students take the stage to receive their diploma. In the background is always the iconic marching song “Pomp and Circumstance” stirs the crowd. Almost every American can recognize the tune, but few people know about its British origins. In this brief history, we’ve compiled some facts about this legendary tune.
Before mentioning the song in question, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the title, which is lifted from Shakespeare’s Othello. “Pomp and circumstance” was a phrase used to describe a stately event or performance, and it’s still used to this day. The English words originate with the Latin “pompa” and “circumstantia”, which translate to “procession and standing around”. This might sound confusing. However, if you trace the use of “circumstantia” to the 13th century, it refers to “a particular detail of small consequence”. Today, the words signify an event of huge importance. As you can see, the meaning has essentially completely reversed over the centuries.
Born in 1857, Edward Elgar was a prominent English composer who reached a new level of fame with “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1”. The song debuted at the Liverpool Orchestral Society in 1901 to tremendous fanfare. Then, Henry J. Wood’s orchestra performed the song a few days later to a thrilled audience, who begged for a double encore.
Later that year, the English singer Clara Butt commissioned Elgar to compose the finale for King Edward VII’s coronation. Elgar added lyrics to “Pomp and Circumstance” from the poet Arthur Christopher Benson, and he changed the title to “Land of Hope and Glory”. The stirring nationalist song premiered at the coronation on August 9th, 1902.
After such a huge performance, Elgar became an internationally renowned composer, and American orchestras started playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on a regular basis. So, why is “Pomp and Circumstance” played at graduation today, and not just at classical concerts?
In 1905, Elgar took a trip to America to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. He made a lasting impression on the university, and the orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance” as he left the stage. The song quickly became associated with commencement ceremonies and spread to Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Columbia. Soon, every American university was using it.
Today, the lyrical version of “Pomp and Circumstance” is one of the most popular songs in England. Often played at sporting events, it’s an unofficial national anthem, and the English love to sing along in a brief moment of nostalgic pride.
At GraduationSource, we love iconic music that memorializes a moment in time, and Elgar’s classic stands alone. Visit our blog to learn more about university history and traditions.