Pompous Circumstances

Pompous Circumstances

I’m back in Maryland for a few days to attend a family member’s high school graduation. It’s a time for celebration—one chapter of a life ending, another beginning, etc.—but the graduation ceremony itself is sure to be anything but celebratory. The atmosphere of forced solemnity will be enhanced, I’m sure, by Elgar’s commencement chestnut Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which Wikipedia tells me was first performed at a U.S. graduation when Elgar picked up an honorary doctorate at Yale. What I want to know is, where are the honorary doctorates for Mauricio Kagel, Tom DeLio, and Alvin Lucier? I’d love to see bright young people crossing the stage to the looped strains of La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. On second thought, it might not need to be looped.

These are extreme examples, but it’s not hard to come up with music, older or never, that would be cooler than Pomp and Circumstance for graduation ceremonies and just as palatable. It’s not an ideal venue for discursive music, of course, but choosing special processional music would be a great way for a school to assert its uniqueness and set itself apart from its academic and athletic rivals. Commissioning special processional music would be an even better way—and a great community outreach opportunity in the bargain.

It’s hard to be passionate about Pomp and Circumstance; it’s impossible, really, to feel any ownership of such a worn, utilitarian staple. Graduating students should have a piece that really belongs to them, something that fulfills Pomp and Circumstance‘s social function but is as one-of-a-kind as the kids receiving their diplomas. And getting a local to work on such a piece would be much less hassle than bringing in a figure like Elgar—I bet these composers wouldn’t even demand an honorary GED.

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9 thoughts on “Pompous Circumstances

  1. philmusic

    I agree. This would seem to be a great opportunity for commissioning new works-graduations and such.

    On a different front, as a elementary music teacher, I have had to fight many times and lose just as much to have the Elgar (or something like it) performed and performed live in school graduations.

    Phil Fried, 2 for 1 concerto special, operators standing by!!

  2. scottLwise

    I concur that it would be nice for something new or (at the minimum) different to be used in these events, but I have to disagree about your statement about it being difficult/impossible to feel passionate or ‘ownership’ of this music.

    The Elgar seldom fails to bring quite a few emotions swirling to the surface, some related to memories of my high school orchestra’s rendition of it, some not (besides being, it seems to me, a very nice piece). The same holds true for Walton’s Crown Imperial, which is what my university traditionally plays in place of the Elgar. That institution, by the way, has a nice compromise; a wide selection of pieces, from the march from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, to newly commissioned works (including, one proud year, a work of mine) are used for the entrance of the students and the Walton kicks in for the entrance of the faculty, University mace, President, etc. In any event there is something to be said for the shared experience of ‘tradition’ at ceremonies.

  3. Colin Holter

    Good point, Scott. The Elgar wouldn’t have survived so long in that role unless it were suited. (Are you a Concordia grad? I hear they use Crown Imperial.)

  4. Scott

    How about those chestnuts at wedding season: Wagner, Mendelssohn, etc. I wrote the recessional for my own wedding and had some friends that liked it enough to use it themselves a few years later. I think the guests enjoyed hearing something different, too.

    But I didn’t make a dime off of this and besides, I think most brides have planned what they want played at their weddings by the age of six.

  5. pgblu

    I wrote some of the music to accompany my own wedding. Big mistake. Having no time to rehearse with the performers to make sure they’ve at least understood what tempo you want can make for the ceremonial equivalent of crickets chirping.

  6. EmilyG

    At McGill graduations, they have mercifully replaced Elgar’s tired old march with the first movement of Holst’s Second Suite.

  7. scottLwise

    The euphonium solo in that march is one of my favorite melodies in the wind band ‘canon.’

    And no Colin, I did not attend Concordia, but rather SMU (in Dallas).

  8. Sarah

    I think most brides have planned what they want played at their weddings by the age of six.

    Scott, while I’m sure you didn’t mean this, that statement seems to imply that the brides are never composers.

    ~ Sarah


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