Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Classical Compositions…Song # 6/50: Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39 by Sir Edward Elgar.

To my way of thinking, “Pomp and Circumstance” is the classical music equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” It is a series of marches that evoke much in the way of patriotic fervor from audiences: particularly from British audiences. It was composed by Elgar just prior to the beginning of WWI, which was a time when, as they say, the sun didn’t set on the British Empire. A clue to Elgar’s true intentions with this composition can be seen in its title. “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” is actually a series of five-six marches. When first released, these marches aligned nicely with the militaristic mythology of the mighty British Empire, but in actual fact, Elgar was making a political statement with his music. He was attempting to cleverly convey a warning to regular citizens who might find themselves enlisting in a fit of patriotism because they were seduced by the “pomp” of the messaging being aimed at them. Elgar wanted everyone to be aware of the “circumstances” of trench warfare which was to be the new way of fighting in a war that was just around the corner. So, “Pomp and Circumstances, Op. 39”, like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, ranks as one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written.

But, the irony of Edward Elgar’s most famous composition does not end there. In life, we often view events that provoke a sense of cognitive dissonance as being normal simply because they are allowed to happen again and again. Thus, we may feel that something is awry but we come to accept it because everyone else seems to be ok with it. With “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39”, the question that begs to be asked is how did a British military-inspired suite of marches become the defacto processional march for high school and university graduates in North America? At this time of year (specifically in Canada) the school year is drawing to a close, and with it, many students are participating in graduation ceremonies. It is rare to find a ceremony anywhere in which “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” isn’t played as the graduating students enter the auditorium. The story of how this came to be says a lot about the type of person Edward Elgar actually was. Here is his story.

Edward Elgar at his piano.

Growing up, Elgar found himself on the outside of the strata of society from which he would come to draw much of his audience in later years. His father worked as a piano tuner. Because of his father’s access to pianos, young Edward was able to learn how to play and then to develop his skills. As a young boy, it was assumed that Edward would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a piano tuner, as well. Perhaps, because of his improving musical skill set, he might become a piano instructor and earn a little extra money from giving private lessons to young students. So, while other young, rising musical stars were off studying at music academies abroad, Elgar was working piecemeal at home. All throughout his teenage years, Elgar believed he was meant for small things because of how the British class system worked at the time. He was Catholic at a time when Catholicism was on the outs. He was working class and lacked connections. His family did not come from money. He had not graduated from high school, dropping out when he was only fifteen years of age. At one point, he found a mentor in the form of violinist Adolf Pollitzer, but Elgar stopped his lessons with Pollitzer because he felt his skills would never be such that he could stand as an equal with his peers.

Caroline Roberts and Edward Elgar.

However, one of Life’s great lessons is to be true to yourself. Edward Elgar had always loved music, but what he really liked was composing music rather than playing it. Having to make ends meet meant that Elgar was forced to play and teach, and therefore he didn’t have the luxury of being able to indulge his passion for composing very often. Then, he got his big break in life. One of his violin students was a young woman who had decided against marriage. Her name was Caroline Roberts, and she was determined to live as a single woman (who, in those days, would be called a spinster). However, when her family hired Elgar to provide Roberts with violin lessons, she became quite taken with him. Her family forbade her from marrying Elgar because he was considered to be beneath her station in life. However, love conquered all and they were wed. Roberts’ family disowned her and cut off all of her funding. That didn’t faze young Caroline because she had published a book of poetry and was becoming known in literary circles as a writer of some renown. With her steady writing income, she and Edward were able to live a modestly comfortable life. More importantly, Edward was not having to work as long and hard as he once did as a music teacher and started to devote some of his time to composing.

Even though Elgar began creating compositions that attracted praise from music critics, he remained plagued by self-doubt. He was his own worst critic and often turned down opportunities to attend social events and make important connections with wealthy patrons simply because he never felt as though he belonged in higher society. But even though he was loath to promote himself and to network with those he deemed his superiors because of social status, Elgar increasingly came to believe in his own abilities as a composer. That rising sense of personal self-confidence allowed him to compose his first great musical work which ended up being called “The Enigma Variations”. The success of “The Enigma Variations” in 1899 pushed him into the public spotlight and garnered for him a sense of acclaim that not even he could deny any longer. Having achieved a hit that first time gave Elgar a better sense of what it took to create top-notch music that would succeed at a national level. So, a few years later in 1901 when he began stitching together a suite of marches, Elgar recognized immediately that he had another hit on his hands. In fact, when “Pomp and Circumstance” was premiered, the response was so rapturous that the entire suite was repeated twice! Since then, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance, Op 39” is viewed by many as the unofficial national anthem of Britain. In 1904, the piano tuner’s son was knighted and became Sir Edward Elgar, Britain’s pre-eminent composer!

Presenting “Sir” Edward Elgar! Newly knighted and now regarded as England top composer.

So, how did Sir Edward Elgar’s suite of marches become the standard processional accompaniment at North American graduation ceremonies? Not long after Elgar was knighted, the former high school dropout was invited to cross the Atlantic and accept an honourary music degree from Yale University. In America, Elgar was viewed with much respect for his accomplishments and was fêted as an honoured dignitary upon his arrival. Wanting to make Elgar feel welcome and comfortable, an orchestra played several of his compositions throughout the course of commencement ceremonies but saved “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” for the grande finale. Everyone in attendance that day stated that Elgar’s music was the perfect complement to the graduation ceremony in that it sent the graduates out into the world with a fitting combination of praise for their academic accomplishments to date and belief in the awesome nature of the potential each possessed. Word quickly spread to other universities in the US as to how perfectly “Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39” lent itself to such ceremonies, and as is often the case, Yale’s success was mimicked elsewhere and in no time at all, it became the unofficial music of just about all graduation ceremonies everywhere.

The story of Sir Edward Elgar is one that should be held up and told to students everywhere, because it is the quintessential example of what can happen if you work hard and believe in yourself and…let’s be honest, catch a lucky break or two along the way. Elgar was a highschool dropout without any social or professional connections of note, and yet, he was able to follow his passion and turn that into great success. The man who never felt he merited a place in higher society is now venerated as being Britain’s most important composer of all time. The high school dropout ended up becoming Dr. or Professor Elgar because of his degree from Yale. Finally, as history cruelly demonstrated, Elgar was among the very first to correctly predict that the “circumstances” of warfare would end up being truly horrific and would come to fuel anti-”Pomp” sentiments that had been so central to Britain’s belief in who it was as a country.

As the sun has come to set on the British Empire, Sir Edward Elgar has risen to become one of most respected figures of his time. History has treated him with the utmost kindness. Not a bad life at all for a piano tuner’s son.

The link to the video for the composition “Pomp and Circumstance, Op.39” can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sir Eward Elgar can be found here.

The link to the classical music station located in my hometown…Classical 103.1…can be found here.

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