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How “Pomp and Circumstance” Became the Unofficial Soundtrack to Graduation (featuring the KUSC Virtual Choir)

This year is a little different, but graduation season is traditionally marked by many things: mortarboards, lengthy speeches, and Pomp and Circumstance. The march is all but guaranteed to be played as all the grads pour into the ceremony – meaning you’ve likely heard it quite a bit over the years. And during that time, it’s possible you’ve wondered, why is this always the graduation march?

Here’s some background on Pomp and Circumstance – first of all, it’s not the only Pomp and Circumstance. Composed by Sir Edward Elgar in 1901, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D is the first (and best known) of Elgar’s six Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches.

Traditionally at graduations, the processional is scored by the Trio section, “Land of Hope and Glory,” which has become colloquially known as Pomp and Circumstance.

And that is distinctly an American adoption. Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1905. They sought to make him the star of the proceedings, bringing in musicians from the university and beyond to play his music, and Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 was performed during the recessional as a special tribute.

After that, Princeton used it, then the University of Chicago, Columbia, then Vassar, and so on until it caught on all across the U.S. (although it’s since been bumped up to the processional walk-in of the graduates).

That’s not necessarily surprising, given the warm emotions engendered by the piece. It’s stately, it keeps the right tempo for potentially thousands of graduates walking into the ceremony, and provides a certain amount of regality to the whole affair.

So it makes sense that before it was the graduation song it was used for the coronation of Britain’s Edward VII in 1902. The future king heard the march performed a year prior, and selected it for the ceremony, and even had the song fitted with lyrics by A.C. Benson.

Here it is as sung by Clara Blutt, who first performed the song in June 1902:

This Spring, you may not hear Pomp and Circumstance quite as much. But if you have a grad in your life, make sure you play it at least once for them — after all, it’s a little weird to think of graduation season without it.

And as a little bonus, here’s our staff performing the Pomp and Circumstance.

Written by:
Zosha Millman
Zosha Millman
Published on 05.27.2020