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Caps and Gowns and Pomps and Circumstances

July 2, 2010

One of the more entertaining activities I got to participate in while on vacation was attending a small-town highschool graduation with a friend.  Entertaining for a few reasons: the experience had no lack of rah-rah American familial enthusiasm, mature-too-soon girls attempting a graceful walk across the football field in 3-inch stilettos, music that wasn’t cued to the right spot (which meant the national anthem was skipped altogether), sprinklers that went on as the grads were processing onto the field… shall I go on?  And, of course (because no graduation would be complete without it), Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No.1.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  It’s a great piece… rousing, regal, and, yes, very pompish and circumstancy, but, seriously, is this the only musical option for graduation processionals??   While the very recognizable Trio (aka. “Land of Hope and Glory”) tailor fits the occasion, there always seems to be an awkward discomfort when the opening (and later repeated) Allegro, con molto fuoco comes up – like the grads should be running for their seats in a mad “musical chairs” scramble (and the one left standing doesn’t graduate).  So, why is this piece so synonymous with graduations?

To see if there was an answer to my question, I snooped around the web a bit and found this answer on NPR:

It first became associated with graduations in 1905, when it was played when Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1905, but it was played as a recessional, not as a processional, at the ceremony.

“After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it, the University of Chicago [and] Columbia,” music commentator, Miles Hoffman tells NPR’s Bob Edwards. “Then eventually… everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to.”
(For the full NPR article, click here.)

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing it yet this year…

The NPR article goes on to suggest some other possible options for grad processionals:
Felix Mendelssohn‘s Ruy Blas overture
Henry Purcell‘s march from The Married Beau
Hector Berlioz‘s The March to the Scaffold
Guiseppe Verdi‘s Aida: Grand March
Marc-Antoine Charpentier‘s prelude from Te Deum in D Major

I’d add for consideration:
George Frideric Handel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351 overture (here, even the Allegro sections don’t seem out of place thanks to the trumpet fanfare, and they might help speed things up for which you will be eternally loved)
Handel‘s Scipio march (it’s short – great for a class of, oh, 2 grads… give or take 1 – so you might want to loop it a few times)
J.S. Bach‘s Air on a G String (too reminiscent of pretty girls in bridal white??)
Edward Elgar‘s Pomp and Circumstance No.5 (another faster choice, but it fits the joyful, triumphant mood of the day.  And again, see the note under Handel’s Royal Fireworks about being eternally loved)

What else are we missing?
Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Coronation March?

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