Graduation season is in full swing and UT grads will celebrate their achievements in commencement ceremonies this weekend. Ever wonder why Americans collect their diplomas to the strains of a march by a British composer?
It all began at a very special graduation ceremony. Edward Elgar was invited to visit the United States several times, but couldn't quite be persuaded to make the trip. But that all changed when his friend Samuel Sanford, Professor of Music at Yale University, extended an invitation. Sanford promised Elgar a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and went a step further: on June 28, 1905, Elgar would be awarded an honorary doctorate in music at Yale's commencement ceremony.
The ceremony concluded with a performance of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. The piece made such an impression on the audience that other schools followed suit: Princeton in 1907, Chicago in 1908, and other leading schools during the next decade. By the mid-twenties the march was being performed throughout the country and is such a part of the graduation scene today we can hardly imagine walking across the stage to anything else.
Another bit of trivia: the "pomp and circumstance" referred to in the titles of Elgar's marches (he wrote six in all) refers not to graduation, but to war. It's taken from Act III, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Othello.
Congratulations to all the grads out there! And to the poor band members who have to play Elgar's music over and over for what must seem like hours—take comfort. Someday you'll be on the receiving end of all that pomp and circumstance!