We don’t really celebrate graduations en masse in Norway, well, except PhD graduations, I suppose, so last week I was astonished to hear Pomp and Circumstance played as the graduates walked in (the most familiar part of the melody on repeat) and found myself confused, even wondering whether that could be the Star Spangled Banner and I’d just forgotten the tune, but why then the words in my head: Land of hope and glory, kingdom of the free? What strange irony for a song about a kingdom where the sun never sets to be played at an American graduation ceremony.


My favourite part of the ceremony, was watching the parents and cousins and siblings and grandparents standing up as the graduates poured into the many seats provided for them, peering to see their young ones, some yelling out names, many waving, and the graduates themselves responding by craning their necks, waving back, proud grins visible even from my distant seat.

The first speech was by a faculty member who was British. He spoke about how strange it was for him to hear such an English song reappropriate for American graduations, and said how proud Elgar would have been to hear his music played at such an occasion, its audience completely unaware of the imperialistic words added to it after Elgar wrote it, words that any British (and if I’m representative, Australian-Norwegian) listener could not help but hear listening to that music even today. Elgar hated those words, apparently. The speaker, I think, managed to say everything about his own opinions of empires, hopefully without going so far as to offend parents who no doubt wanted a celebration of their children rather than political statements.

The best thing about immersing myself in other cultures is that my own prejudices become visible to me. Some I’ll keep, others I’ll reconsider, but not taking things for granted is always of value. Things don’t mean the same thing everywhere.

[Correction: I’d written Edgar, and of course, as Mark points out in his comments, it’s Elgar. Oops! I corrected it.]

6 thoughts on “other countries’ ceremonies

  1. Mark Bernstein

    I believe the composer of Pomp and Circumstance was Sir Edward Elgar.

    An interesting account of the introduction of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 to academic processionals in the US can be found at http://www.elgar,org/3pomp-b.htm

    Now, for bonus points: people have been singing Gaudeamus Igitur around academe for a very long time. If memory serves, the words are from Carmina Burana, which is preserved in a 13th century manuscript. But, where does the tune come from?

  2. Eirik

    Well, that was a Google challenge if I ever saw one!

    At http://www.arach.net.au/~algernon/gaudeamus/ you’ll find the following: “Although Gaudeamus is regarded as being the oldest surviving student’s song, claims that it was written as early as the 13th century are largely unfounded. […] The earliest known appearance of something close to the modern lyrics is in a handwritten student songbook from Germany dating between 1723 and 1750; these were picked up by C.W. Kindleben, but he made important changes to them before he published the resultant (modern) lyrics in his “Studentlieder ” in 1781 […] The melody, however, is of less certain origin; it was already quite well-known when C.W. Kindleben published his lyrics.

    And as you rightly point out, Edward Elgar was the composer of “Pomp and Circumstance”. I was told this from an early age BTW, as my father was born in Worcester, England, which is famous for four things: Elgar, the sauce, the porcelain factory and the Civil War battle. 🙂

  3. Lars

    Eirik almost beat me to it, but according to


    “Perhaps the first known appearance of the Latin words and the melody together was in Ignaz Walter’s operatic setting of “Doktor Faust,” performed in 1797 in Bremen; in this opera, the students in Auerbach’s cellar sing “Gaudeamus Igitur.” No printing of the music of this opera has been found. An undated contemporary libretto published by Friedrich Meiers Erben, Bremen, is at LC; the words of “Gaudeamus Igitur,” mostly indicated as “Gaudeamus etc.” are at p. 21. The melody is particularly well known because of its inclusion in Brahms, “Akademische Fest-Ouverture” for orchestra published in 1881.”

    Apparently, some of the verses of “Gaudeamus Igitur” do appear in 13th century manuscripts, but certainly not the entire song.

  4. Jill

    Good heavens. I’m not even sure I’ve heard Gaudimus Igitur. Sounds like that almost means they should take my PhD back. You guys are BRILLIANT finders of interesting background details.

    And Mark, thank you for pointing out my shameful misspelling/misthinking of Elgar. I should have known better. Tut tut.

    Actually, it turns out I got the words for Land of Hope and Glory wrong too. According to the Free Dictionary they really go like this:

    Land of Hope and Glory,
    Mother of the Free,
    How shall we extol thee,
    Who are born of thee?
    Wider still and wider
    Shall thy bounds be set;
    God, who made thee mighty,
    Make thee mightier yet.

    Thy fame is ancient as the days,
    As Ocean large and wide
    A pride that dares, and heeds not praise,
    A stern and silent pride
    Not that false joy that dreams content
    With what our sires have won;
    The blood a hero sire hath spent
    Still nerves a hero son.

    No kingdom there. But a patriotism that’s well, rather frightening, given current events.

    According to BBC’s Guide, the words were written in close collaboration with Elgar. Which doesn’t fit with the commencement address I heard, which stated that Elgar hated the words, but you know, whatever.

  5. Doug

    I wonder what they play at UK graduation ceremonies. I guess I get to find out in a month … Your comment about living in foreign cultures revealing one’s prejudices rings very true.

    Unfortunately, I think I’m still getting over the stage of having my prejudices brought way out into the open …

  6. Eirik

    I spent seven years at a Norwegian university and heard Gaudeamus maybe once. So you’re probably not alone in never having heard it in a university context, Jill. But try to download one of the many MP3s/MIDIs out there (at http://www.academic-corporations.org/songs/gaudeamusigiturjuvenes.html, for instance), and you may recognize it nonetheless. Probably not from a movie though, I only got seven hits on “gaudeamus” with Imdb’s soundtrack search. 😉

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