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Pomp? Circumstance? Yes, It All Started at Yale

“I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em—knock ’em flat,” Edward Elgar boasted to a friend in 1901. The British composer had just written the first of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and he was right: He had a winner. When the piece premiered in London that October, the audience demanded a double encore.

Elgar never intended Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 for commencement ceremonies, let alone American commencement ceremonies. His title, from Act III of Othello, invoked military majesty: “Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,/ The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,/ The royal banner, and all quality, / Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!” In 1902, Elgar recycled the tune for “The Land of Hope and Glory,” a patriotic hymn he included in his Coronation Ode for Edward VII. A version of the hymn is now known throughout Britain as an unofficial national anthem.

On June 28, 1905, the melody began its march into musical immortality on this side of the Atlantic, when it was heard for the first time at a commencement. The place was Yale’s Woolsey Hall.


Elgar was one of 14 honorees that year, but Sanford made him the star of the festivities.

Samuel Sanford, a Yale music professor and pianist, was the man who brought the composition and its composer to New Haven. A talented pianist, he was too shy to perform in public, and had dedicated himself instead to promoting music at Yale and nationally. It was he who managed the installation of the great Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall. (The joint dedication of hall and organ took place 100 years ago this June.) Sanford was a close friend of Elgar's; in 1904, he presented the composer with a Steinway piano. In 1905, he sent Elgar an invitation from Yale to attend commencement and receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Elgar had turned down other invitations to the United States, but the combination of friendship, doctorate, and Steinway must have been persuasive. He and his wife Caroline arrived in New Haven that June and stayed at Sanford’s mansion on Hillhouse Avenue.

Elgar was one of 14 honorees that year, but Sanford made him the star of the festivities. Before he received his doctorate for “leadership . in an art which gives noble expression to that which is uplifting and inspiring in human feeling,” the audience was treated to two parts from his first oratorio, The Light of Life. Sanford had arranged for a performance by not only the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and the college choir, but also the Glee Club, members of the faculty, and several New York musicians. At the end of the ceremonies, as graduates and officials marched out of Woolsey, the recessional music was Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.

The tune became a staple at U.S. graduations—but not at Yale. University band director Thomas C. Duffy notes that the march has not been heard at a commencement here since at least 1950, when a predecessor was reportedly told by the college secretary: “Do not play that song.” Pomp and Circumstance is “high school declasse,” says Duffy, and in its stead, composers from Walton to Berlioz now set the marching pace.  the end


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