'Pomp and Circumstance'

Familiar Standard Marches Ahead of Competitors

Pomp and Circumstance. It's hard to imagine a graduation without it. Music commentator Miles Hoffman stops by Morning Edition to discuss the famous processional and other marches in this season of commencement exercises and weddings.

Sir Edward Elgar composed Pomp and Circumstance — the title comes from a line in Shakespeare's Othello ("Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!") — in 1901. But it wasn't originally intended for graduations. Elgar's march was used for the coronation of King Edward VII.

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," Hoffman tells NPR's Bob Edwards. "Then eventually... everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to."

What was played as a processional at the Elgar ceremony was the Ruy Blas overture by Felix Mendelssohn, but Hoffman suggests it may not strike some as a graduation theme. "I'm not sure I can actually hear or feel the tassels waving there in the breeze," Hoffman says.

But if you're tired of Pomp and Circumstance, there are several terrific alternative marching tunes, he says. For example, Henry Purcell's march from The Married Beau, "a sort of specialty processional, but it's a great piece."

Or a selection from Hector Berlioz with the unfortunate title of The March to the Scaffold. Perfect if the graduates know that they will be unemployed, Hoffman says.

Music Heard in the Morning Edition Report

1. Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin conductor (1991, Virgin Classics)

2. Felix Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas overture, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Claus Peter Flor conductor (RCA Victor)

3. Henry Purcell's march from The Married Beau, from Baroque Music for Brass and Organ, Empire Brass Quintet, (Telarc)

4. Hector Berlioz's The March to the Scaffold, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conductor (Sony Classical)

5. Verdi's Aida: Grand March, Boston Pops Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler conductor, (RCA Victor)

6. Wedding march from Wagner's opera Lohengrin, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conductor (EMI Classics)

7. Marc-Antoine Charpentier's prelude from Te Deum in D Major, Baroque Music for Brass and Organ, Empire Brass Quintet, (Telarc)