More pomp than circumstance, please

With commencement season well under way, there's one piece of classical music everyone can now hum, even if they don't know what it's called.

Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1," the finale of a work composed to mark the 1902 coronation of British King Edward VII is the traditional choice for commencement ceremonies. It's easy to see why. It has a catchy melody, yet is serious and somber enough to mark an important day. It's got lots of pomp. It's the circumstance that bothers me.

The march - and words by A.C. Benson - became a popular patriotic number, often sung as a hymn, "Land of Hope and Glory." It's one of those classic tributes to the era when Britannia ruled the waves - and, according to the chorus, was divinely ordained and destined to expand:

Land of Hope and Glory,

Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee,

Who art born of thee? Wider still and wider

Shall thy bounds be set, God, who made thee mighty, Make thee mightier yet.

This revelation should be unsettling not only to history graduates (who may take a more nuanced view of British imperialism and 19th-century geopolitics), but to anyone who remembers that America had a revolution and threw out the British.

Yes, it's fortunate that few people know the words. Otherwise, "The Star-Spangled Banner" could be followed by a rousing tribute to British colonialism at commencement ceremonies.

I remember the hymn's words because it was a morning-assembly favorite at the boarding school in England I attended as a young Brit. We sang it with gusto, but without any thought of its meaning in a world where the bounds of the British Empire (now the Commonwealth) were fast shrinking as colonies from the Caribbean to the Pacific declared independence.

However, "Land of Hope and Glory" didn't seem out of place in an all-male school where teachers wore robes to class, cricket and rugby were the sports of choice (soccer was for the working-class), and discipline was enforced with the cane. That's why I still feel uneasy about the physical trappings - the pomp and circumstance - of commencement ceremonies. Gowns, hoods, mortar boards, tassels; velvet hats of university bigwigs; throne and ceremonial mace - all these symbolize a society I thought I left behind when I came to the US as a grad student in the '70s. It was a society where, from the House of Lords to morning assembly at school, robes and hoods denoted a system of class and privilege.

Over the years I've avoided as many commencements as possible (including my own). These days, as a university administrator, I'm expected to show up. So the other day I walked over to the university's Office of Public Occasions, was measured for a cap, lied about my weight, and handed over $50 to rent the gown, hood, and tassel.

"You'd save a lot of money if you bought your academic regalia," the student worker suggested. She handed me a glossy brochure showing a multiethnic bunch posing in various shades of black, purple, blue, and red. I just can't see myself actually owning academic regalia. It would feel like a sell-out; class betrayal. "I think I'll just keep on renting. It's a personal thing," I said.

I'll be at commencement this year because it's an important occasion for my students. But when they play "Pomp and Circumstance," I won't be singing "Land of Hope and Glory." Fortunately, Elgar's tune has also lent itself to more subversive lyrics. On soccer grounds all over England, working-class fans came up with their own chorus to scorn their opponents and celebrate the home team. One local version goes:

We hate Tottenham Hotspur, We hate Ar-sen-al too;

We hate Man United/ But [home team] we love you.

I'm not sure what Elgar would think of this version, but that's the one that warmed me up on cold, damp Saturdays at Elland Road, home ground of Leeds United, the team I followed in my 20s. And that's what I'll be singing to myself at commencement.

David Mould is an associate dean of communication at Ohio University, Athens.

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