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Blinkhorn: Elgar's rite of passage

05/29/09 5:55PM By Tom Blinkhorn
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(HOST) According to commentator Tom Blinkhorn, the music most frequently heard at graduations today was originally written for a rather different sort of ceremony.

(BLINKHORN)  At the Vermont Technical College graduation the other day, an elderly lady sitting behind me confessed that she always feels like crying every time she hears the opening notes of "Pomp and Circumstance."  There is indeed an air of melancholy and nostalgia in the slow cadence of the melody.
 
It was not intended for graduations, however. It was actually composed more than a century ago in England to mark the coronation of King Edward the seventh. And it earned the composer, Edward Elgar, a knighthood at age 47, thus Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born on June 2, 1857 - 152 years ago this June - in a village outside Worcester, England, the fourth of seven children. His father was a piano tuner. At age eight, Edward was taking piano and violin lessons. At age 15, he started giving music lessons.

By all accounts, Elgar, who wore a distinctive handle-bar moustache, was an amazingly prolific artist, composing Chamber music, symphonies, instrumental concertos, and songs.

The English countryside inspired him. He would travel for miles on his bicycle, humming and thinking.

A line from Shakespeare's Othello - "Pride, pomp and Circumstance of glorious war!" caught his fancy and the melody soon took form, the first of five Pomp and Circumstance marches. "I've got a tune that will knock 'em...knock 'em flat," he told a friend. "...a tune that comes once in a lifetime."

Kind Edward liked the tune but insisted that it have words. So a prominent poet of the day - A.C. Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury - was recruited. He produced the song "Land of Hope and Glory," which is played to Elgar's original melody.

Between 1902 and 1914, Elgar enjoyed phenomenal success, made four visits to the United States, including one conducting tour. He was the first composer to make extensive recordings of his own compositions.

"Pomp and Circumstance," became associated with Graduation in 1905 when it was played as Elgar received an honorary degree from Yale University. Later, Princeton  used it, then Columbia, the University of Chicago, then just about every education institution, including some in Japan. It has become an unofficial national anthem in England which does not have its own.

"God Save the Queen" is the national anthem of the United Kingdom. A 2006 survey conducted by the BBC suggested that 55% of the English public would rather have "Land of Hope and Glory" than "God Save the Queen" as their national anthem.

Despite all his success, Sir Edward Elgar suffered long bouts of depression. You would never know it, however, watching the exhuberance of Vermont Tech graduates - or those anywhere else - as they bolt from the ceremony chasing their dreams.
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