If you’ve ever attended a high school or college graduation ceremony, you’ve probably heard the familiar music that accompanies the students as they enter. It is the march, “Pomp and Circumstance,” written by English composer Sir Edward Elgar. But what does the title mean, and why is it used for graduations?
Sir Edward Elgar composed the piece in 1901 for the coronation of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom in 1902. Elgar pulled the title of the march from Shakespeare’s play, Othello, and the line, “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
While one comma breaks up the phrase we are familiar with, an English playwright named Philip Massinger, who was heavily influenced by Shakespeare, used the term as we know it today. In his 1640 play, Bashful Lover, he had the lines, “The minion of his prince and court, set off with all the pomp and circumstance of greatness.” Elgar’s title is still attributed to Shakespeare, however.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “pomp and circumstance” as “impressive formal activities or ceremonies.” “Pomp” is broken down into the definition of “a show of magnificence or splendor” while “circumstance” is defined as “a condition, fact, or event accompanying, conditioning, or determining another.”
While they don’t seem to go together, especially for graduation, the definition of “circumstance” when Shakespeare used it was different than what it is today. According to the Word Detective, beginning around the 14th century, “circumstance” meant “the ceremony or fuss made about an important event.” This is a different meaning than we use today but one that is consistent for describing an event such as graduation.
How then did Elgar’s march begin to be used for graduations? This was attributed to a graduation event Elgar actually attended when he received an honorary Doctorate of Music from Yale University in 1905.
The processional of the graduation ceremony didn’t begin with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” however, and began with Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas overture. It wasn’t until the recessional of the ceremony that the orchestra played Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” The order was changed and adopted as the processional song for graduation by Princeton in 1907 and later by the University of Chicago and Columbia University, with other universities following.
By the mid-1920s, it was being used by many high schools and universities as the processional for their graduation ceremonies. It remains the processional song of choice today.