Why every American graduation plays the same song

Why every American graduation plays the same song

October 17, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Look at this picture. You know the music we’ll play. Even if you have the volume off. “I’ll find you…” Nope. “I’m ready for my closeup…” No. Yep. Why is this song the “graduation song?” How did “Pomp and Circumstance” become
the soundtrack to every…single…graduation? Its path — and fate — is surprising. And to understand it, you have to know about
the British empire’s war for gold. Let’s get technical first: this song is
part of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches. Specifically, it’s the tune from 1901’s
March No. 1 in D. “Land of Hope and Glory” is the version with words. But to get there, you have to go back. In 1901, Queen Victoria was coming to the
end of her 63 year, seven month reign. That period marked a big expansion of the
British Empire. In 1901, a central conflict was the Boer War
in South Africa. It was basically fought over packed diamond
and gold mines. Boers were the Dutch South Africans opposing
Britain. Black South Africans were largely caught in
the crossfire, though some fought with the Boers. For all South Africans, the war was brutal. The British destroyed a lot of territory and
built incredibly harsh internment camps. For the British, that was the march of empire. That fight was in the background when Queen
Victoria died in 1901. When her eldest son, Edward VII, prepared
to be coronated in 1902, he needed a program. At that time, Edward Elgar was already famous,
and so was his military march. So Edward VII asked him to play it at the
coronation and add some words. Elgar got AC Benson to write lyrics, and they
were….warlike. Here’s an early recording sung by Dame Clara
Butt. “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;” Just a second, Dame Butt. Rewind that. “Wider still and wider.” “Wider still” means empires expanding,
for the coronation of a king. And the name “Pomp and Circumstance” comes
from an Othello quote about, well, here’s Orson Welles:
“Pomp and circumstance of glorious war.” This song’s about empire. So why do Americans think it’s about graduation? Pomp and Circumstance was a near instant hit
in America, too. The tune was famous from its premiere, and
it was quickly used in graduations. In 1905, the University of Chicago and University
of Cincinnati both used Edward Elgar’s March at their commencements. Later that same year, Elgar went to Yale to
get an honorary degree for his world famous compositions. In his honor, they played Pomp and Circumstance,
without lyrics, as the ceremony ended. The New Haven Morning Journal called it “a
military march,” but early elite adoption helped it spread across universities. For example, here’s the University of Minnesota’s
commencement programs from 1900 to 1950. Here are the ceremonies where Pomp and Circumstance
played. In 1931, the tune was so popular that Elgar
recorded it for a record — it was the very first session recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Yes, the Beatles Abbey Road. The song established a legacy. That legacy just depended on which country
you were hearing it in. In the UK, Pomp and Circumstance remained
like an unofficial national anthem, while in the US it became graduation kitsch. That’s obvious in the parodies: in Kubrick’s
Clockwork Orange, the song satirizes government. In Disney’s Fantasia 2000, the joke is about
a graduation march. Elgar wears a mortarboard in America and
a crown in the UK. But in either case, his military march endures,
even if it’s not fully understood. The British Empire has shrunk, but the song
Elgar wrote for it? It grows mightier. Take it away, Dame Butt:
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet. So this is probably not the first time this
has happened, but I wanted to call out that we actually got the idea for this video from
a comment. So thank you for that comment — and that
is the reason that you have just learned the history of Pomp and Circumstance and that
I have had this song stuck in my head for the past two weeks.