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Why every graduation plays the same song

To understand the graduation song, you have to know a bit about the Boers, the British Empire, and maybe even a little Othello.

There’s a reason you hear that same song.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

If you’ve been to an American graduation, you’ve probably heard “Pomp and Circumstance.” If the name doesn’t ring a bell, watch the video above — you’ll recognize it.

But how did that song become so familiar?

The story centers on the historical circumstances and reputation of composer Edward Elgar. By the early 1900s, Elgar was widely considered England’s greatest composer. At the same time, the Boer War meant the British Empire was still active and growing. All that was in the background as England prepared for the coronation of Edward VII.

“Land of Hope and Glory,” a lyrical version of one of Elgar’s famous military marches, became the song for the crowning. From there, it traveled to America quickly. Once it was played as Elgar himself received an honorary degree at Yale, the song was on its way to becoming a British tradition as well as an American one.

That winding path has led to different legacies for the tune, but there’s one certainty: Whether you’re in the UK or America, you’ll recognize it. And if you’re seeing a graduation in the United States this spring, you’ll probably have Edward Elgar to thank for the soundtrack.

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