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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Commencement 2019—The Elgar Loops

Image result for edward elgar

As rite of passage music, Edward Elgar’s graduation processional holds its own with Chopin’s funeral march. Composed in 1901, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance [the trio section from the longer Pomp and Circumstance No. 1] debuted on the graduation circuit at Yale in 1905 and then moved on to the other ivies.  It then caught on like wildfire, moving down the collegiate food chain and on to most high school graduation ceremonies as well.

For a decade, I’ve been one of 17 banner carriers at my state university’s undergraduate commencement ceremony. The Elgar has been a constant, but only this year—while 5,500 students processed—did I comprehend the band’s repetitious relationship with the piece.  Without coming up for air, each circuit held musical hands with its carbon-copy predecessor and successor.  

How many times did Pomp and Circumstance circumnavigate? “I think six,” confessed a wind player after the event. What’s more, each time around was “pretty long because the band played the entire thing” (it clocks in at six or so minutes, depending on tempo). Given those challenges, some of the brass players, she noted, had to sit out cycles while others stepped in.

Your ambivalent blogger during loop #6

With that said, I think it’s fair to say that I have survived an onslaught of oversized, “Elgarian Loops.”  Granted, their scale and style shared little in common with familiar counterparts in electronic music, hip-hop, etc. But the music went round and round, without variation, without pause.

That’s all well and good when you digest a cycle or even two above the threshold of consciousness. But beware of further listening on that level. It might well yield ennui, even suffocation and resentment (if, like me, you can’t escape.) Think of elevator music, it’s when the stuff rises to the surface that you wish you’d taken the stairs.