Graduation Music
Wabash College’s commencement ceremony is filled with several traditions. One near universal tradition is the playing of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circustance.”

It is just two weeks before Commencement. Although it is early to say, I would like to say, “Congratulations! Class of 2021!!” We are very lucky to hold it amid the pandemic.

On Commencement day, you will see all the seniors wearing gowns. What kind of music would you imagine for them? I think most of you will think of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” whose official title is “Pomp and Circumstance March in D Major, Op. 39, No. 1.”

Looking at the official title of the music, some of you might think, “No.1?” This is because there are six marches composed at different times. No.6 is based on Elgar’s sketches and arranged by someone else at a later time, so technically it is not his work.

Have you ever wondered why this music is always used for commencement? It is not a special occasion just in the U.S., but also in Japan. The piece has a long background that I must share with you.

First of all, the title “Pomp and Circumstance” comes from a line from Shakespeare’s Othello, recalling triumph in battle. Why Elgar would have composed music related to war? He composed march no.1 in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died, and her eldest son Edward VII succeeded.

It was also the period when the British Empire had a war against South Africa, known as the Boer Wars (1880-81, 1899-1902). Since the Empire was at the peak of its prosperity, it was a natural phenomenon for any musician, including Elgar, to compose music to praise their country and show strong patriotism.

March no.1 premiered on October 19, 1901. It was later used for the coronation of King Edward VII on August 9, 1902. Although it was originally not intended for the coronation, the king liked the music and used it in his own coronation.
In 1905, the University of Chicago and the University of Cincinnati both used the march at their commencements. Then, Elgar went to Yale University to receive an honorary Doctor of Music later in the same year. They played it during the recessional (not the processional!).

Mimicking what the elite universities had done, other universities and colleges nationally and globally started using it as graduation music. Therefore, this music has two characteristics. One is for British people demonstrating their nationalism and the other is for any kind of graduations.

Although there is a singing version of “Land of Glory” usually performed in the BBC’s Proms, I am not going to discuss it. I would like to focus the discussion on it as graduation music rather than as patriotic music.

The music begins with the short introduction played with “ff (fortissimo)” meaning very loud. The whole orchestra rises gradually to enhance the celebration atmosphere. After the climax, it goes down and plays slower to lead the music to the main part.
In the A section, the music marches forward bit by bit playing the combination of eighth notes and sixteen notes, which are relatively short notes to play. The beating rhythm, which is two-four (2/4), makes it easy to step like soldiers walking by their right and left legs alternately. The drum, the cymbal, and the timpani help to create a militaristic atmosphere as the music sounds solemn.

Then, the orchestra plays the same melody again one octave higher. After a strong and sharp chord is played, the rising short wave appears. Half of the orchestra descends by playing the strong accent of quarter notes, while the other half of the orchestra ascends by beating the militaristic rhythm.

The strings and some of the wood instruments play a downward melodic contour with arpeggiated broken chords. Soon, half of the orchestra ascends with a chromatic scale. It goes back to the beginning of the A section and repeats again.

After repeating, the two-quarter notes in each bar are connected by slurs (the curb line on notes), which makes the music sound smoothly. Suddenly, the brass instruments play the beating rhythm like galloping horses. The music syncopates (intentionally not following the beating rhythm), which drives the orchestra moving forward as it goes up. After the climax, the music becomes quiet as if a balloon suddenly bursts out loudly and people become calm at the party.

Then, it comes to the B section. The key changes from D major to G major. This is the part where you can hear the famous graduation melody! First, it is played quietly by the first violin, the clarinet, and the horn as if they were humming. The other instruments play the beating rhythm, which is not militaristic but like soldiers dragging a heavy canon by rope little by little. The rhythm is easy to follow as the same quarter notes play in each bar.

Although this part is in G major, some parts modulate to D major by adding the chromatic C#. However, near the end of the first part, the music goes back to the natural C (C) strongly canceling the C#. It helps to emphasize that this part is G major, not D major.

After the drum rattles from piano (quiet) to forte (loud) like opening the curtain, the whole orchestra joins and plays one octave higher. Again, the drum, the cymbal, and the timpani help to create the militaristic atmosphere even though they do not play the main melody. Their timbres are necessary for this marching music.

Then, the orchestra repeats the A section. At the end, the orchestra plays eighth notes, which ascend the scale chromatically slower and slower (poco allargando) to lead to the next part.

The orchestra plays the B section again, but this time it is played in D major without changing the key. In the second time, it goes up one octave, which is the climax of the entire piece. It is so high that ledger lines on the score imply how harder it is to play than the first time.

Finally, it comes to the coda (the ending part). The marching melody of the A section appears but it is soon swallowed up by the mixing waves of ascending and descending scales. Most instruments end playing a strong singular note, D, which represents strong unity.

Although we cannot hold Commencement like in a normal year, I can imagine all the seniors smiling under their masks. Graduation is not the end of their college life. It is the start of their careers. I hope they will have a great time during Commencement Day.