Pomp, Circumstance, and Elgar
June 15, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
It’s June, and that means Pomp and Circumstance is being heard at graduations from pre-schools to colleges and everything in between. The composer of the Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches, Sir Edward Elgar, wrote the marches over the course of decades, from 1901 to 1930. The music that we in the States call simply Pomp and Circumstance, or more informally, “that graduation song,” comes from March No. 1, but more on this particular piece in a moment.
The title of the set comes from a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello. In Act III, Othello says, “Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars/That make ambition virtue! O farewell!/Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,/The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,/The royal banner, and all quality,/Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.” The context of the quote is a scene in which Othello—now thoroughly poisoned by Iago’s deceit—bemoans the end of the life he knows. There is another literary reference in the first march. Elgar chose a verse from The March of Glory, a poem by British poet and numismatist, John Warren, 3rd Baron de Tabley, and included it with the first march. The poem contains the following words: “Like a proud music that draws men on to die Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy….I hear the Nation march Beneath her ensign as an eagle’s wing.”
March Nos. 1 and 2 were composed in 1901. The first march was dedicated to Alfred E. Rodewald and “the members of the Liverpool Orchestral Society, and the second was dedicated to Granville Bantock. This pair of marches premiered in Liverpool in October of 1901. The first march was lively and ceremonial, while the second provided contrast with a minor key and a more reserved mood. At the second performance of the first pair of marches, at a London Promenade Concert, March No. 1 was so popular, it received the only double encore ever performed at such an event. The Trio of the first march contains our “graduation song,” but in England, this section has a second life (and lyrics) as the song “Land of Hope and Glory.” It was the contralto Clara Butt who urged Elgar to separate this part of the music into an independent song with words. It’s sung at sporting events and is traditionally played at Royal Albert Hall in London on the final concert of the eight-week concert series now known as the BBC Proms. (The historic double encore in 1901 at the Proms started the tradition.)
The first four marches in the set were composed before the First World War: March No. 1 in 1901 and March No. 2 the same year; March No. 3 in 1904; March No. 4 in 1907. They embody an unabashedly patriotic spirit. Elgar, who was one of the first composers to record his works onto gramophone records, released an album with the first and fourth marches on it in 1914, when national spirit needed a lift. The liner notes to that recording said, in part:
“At a time when patriotism is welling up in the breast of every British-born citizen, Elgar’s super-patriotic suite is doubly welcome, especially a performance conducted by the great composer himself. In “Pomp and Circumstance” Elgar reaches great heights of national feeling. The patriotism of the artist shows itself as vividly in this work as in his acceptance, despite his age, of an active part in protective work during the war….No one can listen without experiencing feelings of noble patriotism, such is the nature of its immediate appeal. Every Britisher should possess this unique record.”
Elgar was fifty-seven when the war broke out, and, as the notes suggest, he sought ways he could be helpful to the effort. He served as a special constable of the police and later as a member of the army’s Volunteer Reserve. Although his “Land of Hope and Glory” became ever more popular during the war, Elgar became uncomfortable with the overly nationalistic words, but could do nothing about it.
It’s easy to see why March No. 3 was omitted from the patriotic recording; it begins in a very solemn manner. There is a lively tune in the march, and an overall sense of a noble character, but the mood isn’t as overtly patriotic as the first. Similarly, the second march feels more restless and more pensive. The fourth march had a popular trio section, like March No. 1., and Elgar used the melody in a song called “The King’s Way” which had lyrics written by Alice Elgar, his wife. It was used as the recessional tune for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1980. March No. 5 was completed in 1930 when Elgar was 73 years old, although he had sketched it out at least a decade earlier. He had some ideas for a sixth and final march, but did not live long enough to finish it.
In 2006 the Elgar Will Trust engaged English composer Anthony Payne to complete the sixth march from the sketches. Payne did not see enough in the sketches to write the march, but another piece of the march was discovered in the library of the Royal School of Church Music. From all of this music, Payne was able to put together a sixth march for the set. The piece premiered in August of 2006, nearly one hundred and five years after the premiere of the first two marches.
The first time March No. 1 ever appeared in the United States as part of a graduation ceremony was in June of 1905 at Yale University. Elgar was the guest of honor at the ceremony and received an honorary doctorate in music. Yale’s Professor Samuel Sanford was responsible for inviting Elgar, with whom he was friends, and setting up the musical tribute. It didn’t take long for the musical tradition to take hold in the US. There is something so elemental about this processional, one wonders if it had been around forever, surviving in the ether and waiting for someone to come along and write it down.
Edward Elgar’s output as a composer was interesting and varied. He wrote oratorios and choral pieces, concertos, two symphonies, chamber works, and songs. In 1900, his star began its rise with the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was in many ways England’s musical voice up to that point. Elgar’s music filled the void that Sullivan left, and the Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches were among the first pieces produced at this vital time for Elgar. They provided a lighter contrast to some of his more substantial and “important” works, which were critically acclaimed but less popular with the public. Not every composer can write a good tune, and there’s something to be said for that particular talent. Elgar was once quoted as saying, “I know that there are a lot of people who like to celebrate events with music. To these people I have given tunes. Is that wrong?” Of course not! The world needs good, thoughtful music, but it also likes a catchy little ditty now and then.
Elgar’s works fell out of favor after his death in 1934, but had something of a resurgence in the 1960s, prompted by new scholarship and recordings of his works. He is thought of first as an English composer and second as a composer of the world. For the US, he will always be the composer of “that graduation song,” but of course, he is not only that. I discovered Elgar because of Pomp and Circumstance. This piece was an invitation to find out more. Enigma Variations, the Cello Concerto, and other pieces followed, and this wonderful writer, orchestrator, and voice of England became much more than a little tune, played on repeat, while the graduates made their way from the seats to the stage and back again.