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The surprising Catholic influence behind the popular graduation song

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Cerith Gardiner - published on 09/08/22

The familiar "Pomp and Circumstance" was written in England at the beginning of the 20th century.

If you’ve been to a high school or college graduation ceremony, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the imposing “Pomp and Circumstance” march by the British composer Edward Elgar.

It is interesting that the regal composition has become the march to accompany graduates across the stage as they go to collect their honors. But the story of how this came to be is rather sweet.

Elgar was born in 1857 in Worcestershire, England, and was one of seven children. His father had a music shop and was also a piano tuner, allowing the perfect musical environment for the young Edward. His mother was a Catholic convert who baptized her son into the Catholic faith; this would actually make Elgar a little self-conscious when he tried to make a name for himself among the predominantly Anglican British upper classes.

However, throughout his life, his Catholic faith remained strong and his talent was recognized in the royal circles. In fact, Elgar was commissioned to compose music for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 that became known as the Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

But you might be wondering how a march written for a king made it over the Atlantic. Well, the newly knighted Sir Edward was gaining renown for his compositions such as the Enigma Variations, and the choral piece, The Dream of Gerontius (a composition that is based on Catholic text that caused a bit of a stir among the Anglican high society).

Elgar’s friend, Samuel Sanford, a professor of Applied Music at Yale University, persuaded a reticent Elgar to come to America. Once there, the musician got a glimpse of how much he was appreciated, and was given an honorary doctorate in music at the prestigious university. As an interesting article on pointed out, during the ceremony, “Pomp and Circumstance March No.1” was played.

The triumphal but dignified lilt to the music, along with its warm and sentimental tones, impressed the crowds and it was soon adopted by other academic establishments.

Interestingly, in learning more about the composer — his humble background, his continued faith despite it being frowned upon, and his musical genius — the march becomes the perfect song to accompany any graduate about to embark on an exciting new future.

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