No work of music has a greater lock on a single ritual than Edward Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March no. 1 does on American graduations. Cock an ear in the direction of high school and university campuses across this country in May or June and its impossible not to hear the strains of this late-colonial hymn to Englishness.
Elgar knew he had struck gold with the melody and its equally important bass-line, interrupting work on the score in 1901 to write a hasty and joyful note to a friend; “Gosh! man I’ve got a tune in my head.” The march was composed for Liverpool and given its first public performance there on October 19, 1901; the London premiere came just two days later under the baton of Henry Wood at a Proms concert. Years later, Wood recalled the piece’s rapturous reception:
The people simply rose and yelled. I had to play it again—the same result; in fact, they refused to let me go on with the program. After a considerable delay, while the audience roared its applause, I went off and fetched Harry Dearth who was to sing Hiawatha’s Vision (Coleridge-Taylor); but they would not listen. Merely to restore order, I played the march a third time. And that, I may say, was the one and only time in the history of the promenade concerts that an orchestral item was accorded a double encore.
Edward VII was among the many who were captivated by the tune; he ascended to the throne in January of 1901 and after hearing the march remarked to Elgar that its trio would make a good hymn. Elgar dutifully turned to the lyricist A. C. Benson, who penned the text to “Land of Hope and Glory” inserted by Elgar into the anthem he wrote for the corpulent king’s coronation in Westminster Abbey in August of 1902. After its unprecedented early success, the piece remained a fixture of the Proms; Land of Hope and Glory still starts off the outpouring of nationalistic song on the Proms last night.
The tune not only resonated at home, but also echoed across the Atlantic. The Yale Professor of Music Samuel Sanford invited his friend Elgar to the university in 1905 to receive an honorary doctorate. Sanford organized a massive musical reception for Elgar, one that involved exceptional performing forces drawn from the university, the community, and even New York City. The proceedings concluded with Pomp & Circumstance March no. 1, and it has remained the recessional for the Yale commencement ever since. The piece quickly caught on at graduation ceremonies across the continent, but as a processional. It is the most well-known work of 20th-century music in the English-speaking world; every American high school graduate knows the tune, even if not the title.
The tune now inextricably linked to American commencements is only part of a larger march, and that march only the first of a set of five composed by Elgar. He had planned a sixth, but never finished the march that would have crowned the collection. Having completed the first through fourth between 1901 and 1907, no. 5 came only in 1930, when Elgar was 73. The part of the first march that was equipped with the text “Land of Hope and Glory” and would serve as the American graduation hymn is the trio to a fast march that has the sweep and syncopation of 19th-century French ballet music, colorful even campy.
This march’s vigorous energy is punctuated by cymbal crashes, the hiss of the snare, bass drum blasts, infernal trombone tirades. The opening section then draws back from these pyrotechnics and eases into a trio whose tune is the one now so familiar to us. Elgar reduces the scoring to strings and the tempo to a noble gait. The ‘Gosh!” tune rides in utter confidence above the striding bass-line, a pair of harps gliding alongside as if to sanctify the inexorable spread of civilization across the globe, British forces marching from India to South Africa, Australia to Afghanistan. A massive, tiered crescendo ushered in by drum rolls and waves of brass sets up a return to the brisk march before the magisterial tune intervenes once more, this time integrated into the full ensemble and buttressed by an organ providing benediction for the entire enterprise. This is music that embodies the main fighting forces of British imperialism: military might and Christianity.
As a motto for the projected set of Pomp & Circumstance marches, Elgar chose a verse of the poem by John Warren, Baron de Tabley, called March of Glory:
Like a proud music that draws men on to die
Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy,
A measure that sets heaven in all their veins
And iron in their hands.
I hear the Nation march
Beneath her ensign as an eagle’s wing;
O’er shield and sheeted targe
The banners of my faith most gaily swing;
Moving to victory with solemn noise,
With worship and with conquest, and the voice of myriads.
In an interview just a few years after the stunning success of the first march, Elgar praised Britain as “a nation with great military proclivities.” He believed that the first two Pomp & Circumstance marches reflected his own “old soldier instincts” and was proud of the work’s success in stirring the patriotic impulses of his countrymen.
In the negotiations surrounding the publication of what turned out to be his last Pomp & Circumstance march (no. 5), Elgar’s publisher Leslie Bossey reminded the composer that “You admitted on your account that things are not what they were in the days when you wrote Pomp No. 1.” By then, the militarism of Elgar’s march lay long dead in the mud of the Marne.
The 1920s witnessed a backlash against Elgar among many younger musicians and critics, though Elgar’s defenders, like George Bernhard Shaw, remained staunchly behind him.
On the other side, the contrarian Scottish critic and composer Cecil Gray, one-and-a-half generations younger than Elgar, bombarded the march’s hoary ranks in a 1924 book, A Survey of Contemporary Music:
The immortal ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ tune may at some time or other have aroused such patriotic enthusiasm in the breast of a rubber planter in the tropics as to have led him to kick his negro servant slightly harder than he would have done if he had never heard it, and served to strengthen his already profound conviction of belonging to a chosen race; but however admirable and praiseworthy such a result may be from the point of view of empire building, it has no meaning whatever from the point of view of art, which, in so far as it is worthy of the name, is eternally dedicated ad majorem Dei gloriam, and not to the greater glory of John Bull or any similar tribal fetish.
Undaunted by such sneering attacks on late-imperial excess and hypocrisy, lovers of massed spectacle have clung to the Land of Hope and Glory section of the march, from the Royal Albert Hall to your local American high school gym. At the Proms in London, which gets under way in less than a month, the last night concert, like the one that saw the immediate apotheosis of Elgar’s most famous tune more than a century ago, has shifted its patriotic balast and the ghost ship of Empire lists dangerously as waves of irony and self-satire threaten to swamp it. Witness Thomas Arnes’s 18th-century ode to British naval might, Rule Britannia, done by the magnificent English mezzo, Sarah Connolly in 2009 dressed up as Admiral Nelson: the hero of Trafalgar as cross-dresser, the colonizer as castrato—a symbol for the emasculation of the great conquerers, their former exploits of world dominion turned into the stuff of parody.
In 1931, seven years after Cecil Gray’s attack, Elgar recorded the trio section of his first Pomp & Circumstance march to mark the opening of the Abbey Road Studios in London. As he took to the conductor’s podium, the aged composer admonished the members of the orchestra to play the piece as if they’d never heard it before and then proceeded to lead the group in a supremely stately version of his greatest hit, undaunted by the voices of criticism that had been flaying its style and message.
Three decades later those studios would achieve their greatest fame by hosting the Beatles’ most celebrated sessions. I hear that group’s 1967 song, All You Need is Love, as an unconscious send-up of Pomp & Circumstance. Instead of a hymn-like “tune” of imperial grandeur we get a feel-good incantation “All you need is love” above an Elgarian bass-line pacing ever forward, but in a rhythmic cycle of seven beats; this isn’t the sound of soldiers marching in lockstep, but of a veteran of the Boer War with a limp.
The starched dress uniforms have been replaced by flower-power blouses, the “iron spears of war” laid down for guitars, the strains “that draw men on to die” dissolved by the simple chords of pie-in-the-sky universal love.
There are those who think that music’s meaning is unimportant, that the ideology attending a melody and a musical style are irrelevant if the resulting music stirs us. To be moved or even just entertained is thought to be sufficient to ward off all uncomfortable questions. This is partly why the aged Elgar wanted to hear the tune played in 1931 as if it were still young and fresh. I think it should be heard as old and tired, not about a future that beckons high school and college graduates, but about a defunct past. It’s time to divest Pomp & Circumstance of its ritual status and lay it to rest, wrapped in the Anglo-American flag.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)