Wherever you go to school in the United States, you’ll likely hear "Pomp and Circumstance" at the end of your four-year high school or college experience. But the song wasn’t always dedicated to our proud graduates.
For starters, it was purely English to begin with. Composer Sir Edward Elgar penned the series of tunes in 1901, borrowing from the Bard for its name, "The Pomp and Circumstance Marches"; in Act III, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s "Othello," the ill-fated general himself exclaims, "Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!"
It’s "March No. 1 in D" that we’re most familiar with, because it was played at the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII (son of Queen Victoria, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II’s predecessor King George VI and the Duke of Windsor).
The song can still be heard at some English sports games, and you may hear the argument floating around to replace "God Save the Queen" as the country's national anthem. (Not sure how Her Majesty would feel about that, but to each their own.)
But in 1905, Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and they played the march as a recessional (not a processional just yet), more so to honor him than to commemorate his degree, though. Still, the piece had made its way across the pond.
Princeton, not to be outdone by its fellow Ivy, played it at their next graduation ceremony. Other universities followed suit.
"After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it, the University of Chicago [and] Columbia," music commentator Miles Hoffman told NPR. "Then eventually...everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to."
Previously, the "Ruy Blas Overture" by Felix Mendelssohn was played as a graduation processional song, but I can see why colleges didn’t hesitate to replace it: It sounds like the part of an animated Disney movie's soundtrack when the villain just made a big move against the princess -- not exactly peppy.
Even though you can’t hear "Pomp and Circumstance" now without thinking of tasseled caps and diplomas, psychologists also say that the melody itself lends itself nicely to the occasion.
Kimberly Sena Moore, Ph.D. wrote that the piece’s “regal melody, warm tone colors and stately duple meter tempo establishes a tone of solemnity and dignity,” which elicits the appropriate emotional response as you watch your graduates process across the stage. Plus, it makes you super nostalgic, which then helps you create special memories and close connections to your loved ones.
Don’t get teary, now!