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Musical staple of U.S. graduations is English immigrant

Posted June 11, 2008

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— As seniors march into their graduations across the Triangle this week, some might ask questions about the sometimes-quirky origins of the traditions in which they are taking part.

Like, how did American high-school graduates end up marching in cap and gowns to another country's version of "God Bless America" – minus the lyrics?

Jeffrey Richardson, the band director at Broughton High School, says he's played or directed "Pomp and Circumstance" – the musical staple of American graduations – "probably 500 or 600 times."

Sir Edward Elgar, an English composer, wrote the piece in 1901 to be played at the coronation of King Edward VII. The tune first appeared at an American graduation four years later, when Elgar accepted an honorary degree from Yale University.

The band played "Pomp and Circumstance" as a recessional then, but the tune soon caught on, becoming the ubiquitous processional for graduates at American colleges and high schools.

The anthem is about hope and the glory of winning a war – not inappropriate, Richardson said, for teenagers who have fought the battles of learning, being accepted socially and accepting themselves, and then start gearing up for the battles of young adulthood.

"You've watched a bunch of seniors who are in band come from being, basically, not knowing a lot coming in as ninth-graders, and watching them mature and move to their next level of life," Richardson said.

Music scholars said Elgar was inspired to compose "Pomp and Circumstance" by a line from William Shakespeare's Othello:

"Farewell to the royal banner and all quality, pride, and pomp and circumstance of glorious war."

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  • lauraleigh Jun 11, 2008

    ummm... isn't the English National Anthem the same as "Our Country 'Tis of Thee," and not "The Star Spangled Banner?"

    I was going to comment that it's a shame that "Pomp and Circumstance" is about the only thing Elgar is known for, in the U.S. He was a marvelous composer; WCPE frequently plays "The Enigma Variations," but he composed many, many notable works.

  • denverbob234 Jun 11, 2008

    so, the rhythm of the star spangled banner and Englands national anthem are the same too, we stole it from them