If you’ve ever been to a high school or college graduation, you have most definitely heard the band playing a very specific tune. It’s the song the nearly everyone in the United States associates with year-end goodbyes, caps and gowns, and fresh starts. But not everyone knows the name of that famous tune. So, what’s the graduation song called, anyway? You might be surprised to learn that it’s titled “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Why that title, though? Well, kids, settle in because it’s time for a little history lesson.
“Pomp and Circumstance” was actually born over in the UK. Edward Elgar, who was born in 1857 in Broadheath, composed the song in 1901 as part of his Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches. He eventually provided it to the Royal Family for the 1902 coronation of Edward VII. The song essentially became a national anthem for Brits, who took great pride in it being associated with the crown.
At the time, the British Empire was still staking its claim over South Africa, where it was destroying territory and setting up internment camps during the Second Boer War. The war was brutally fought in the name of diamond and gold mines. The Boers, who were Dutch and Huguenot settlers in the region, staunchly resisted the Empire, leading to a nasty fight that served as the backdrop for Edward VII’s coronation.
When planning to perform “Pomp and Circumstance” at Edward VII’s coronation, Elgar enlisted the help of famed poet Arthur Christopher Benson to write some lyrics for the occasion. The lyrics definitely reflected the political climate of the time. Here are a few lines:
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!
Yep, that definitely sounds like something the British Empire would be proud of. Divide and conquer, right? But enough about the British. How did the song come to be associated with American graduations?
Well, it wasn’t until 1906 that “Pomp and Circumstance” found its feet on American soil. When Elgar was granted an honorary doctorate by Yale University, the school used the tune to commemorate the occasion. And it was then that “Pomp and Circumstance” first came to be known as the graduation song.
According to the Smithsonian, the song was played after Elgar received his degree and walked off stage — not before as is so often done during graduations today. So, basically, Americans kind of have it all wrong when it comes to including the song in modern-day graduations.
In any case, the song took off from there and made its was to other schools and graduations. In an interview with NPR, music commentator Miles Hoffman explained the trajectory of “Pomp and Circumstance” as the graduation song:
After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it, the University of Chicago and Columbia. Then eventually... everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to.
So, that’s the reason every single high school and college graduate must sit through this century’s old tune! It was all about keeping up with the Jones', as they say. Which makes total sense since schools like Princeton and Columbia were (and still are) prestigious institutions. Of course, other schools would want to follow suit!
Interesting stuff, for sure. And now you know how and why "Pomp and Circumstance" came to be known as the graduation song. I'm sure you'll be thinking about this little history lesson when you're sitting through those graduations this summer!