"Pomp and Circumstance"

by Derek E. Nickels, DMA, Director of Music 

Every year around this time, the strains of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 linger through the air. It's a tune that needs no explanation-we know what it is for and why it is performed. But, who wrote it and what for?

Sir Edward Elgar, one of the most influential English composers of the late Romantic era was born on June 2, 1857 in Broadheath, a small village outside the city of Worcester, England. Elgar's father owned a music store and tuned pianos which totally immersed the young Edward in music. His eagerness to learn everything about music led him to learn and play a wide variety of instruments. He eventually taught himself how to play the organ and succeeded his father as organist at St. George's Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. After his marriage to Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889, a former pupil and daughter of a British army Major-General, Elgar's success as a composer began to flower.

In 1901 Elgar, wrote the first of what would become five marches that he named Pomp and Circumstance. The title was taken from a speech in Act 3 of Shakespeare's Othello:

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

The march begins vigorously before the serene melody of the trio (what everyone considers to be THE melody) appears. The melody of the trio became famously in an instant. Elgar himself announced "I've got a tune that will knock ‘em - knock ‘em flat!" He would later use this tune in the finale of his Coronation Ode which celebrated the coronation of King Edward VII. Elgar used the text of Land of Hope and Glory by Arthur Christopher Benson.

While the popularity of this tune is well-known in England to the Land of Hope and Glory text, the words are not as well-known across the Atlantic as the melody. Maestro Theodore Thomas led the Chicago Symphony in the United States premiere at the Auditorium Theater in 1902, the first of several American performances. The United States was enthralled and the composer was beginning to be revered. Yale University invited Elgar to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Music at their graduation ceremony on June 28, 1905 in Woolsey Hall. This ceremony changed the tradition of commencement ceremonies forever. After concluding with Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra played Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 as the assembly left Woolsey Hall. Several prestigious American universities later adopted this work as part of their long-stand tradition: Princeton in 1907, University of Chicago in 1908, Columbia in 1913, and Vassar in 1916, to name a few.

Elgar continued to compose a number of masterpieces of the Victorian era before his death on February 23, 1934. However, his lasting fame and instant recognition will always be Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory.