Origin Story: “Pomp and Circumstance,” Boer War and The Lost History of Stars

Talk about your strange origin stories. Here’s one that’s perfect for graduation season: Did you know the graduation march, “Pomp and Circumstance,” was inspired by the second Boer War? For that matter, how much do you know about the Boer War? We must admit we knew little more than that the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey had fictionally fought in the Boer War, until Dave Boling’s novel The Lost History of Stars came to us. After reading this unforgettable story about a mostly forgotten part of history, we set to finding out more about the 1899-1902 British war in South Africa.

“This war has been largely forgotten by most of the world, even though it was a blueprint for the warfare and cruelty to come later in the twentieth century,” Boling told us. “With the Boer men and boys (ages eight to 80) in commando groups on the veld, the British burned the Boer farms and forced the displaced women and children into hastily constructed concentration camps. Twenty-seven thousand women and children died in the camps, a total nearly ten times greater than the number of deaths of soldiers in combat on both sides. It was, truly, a war against children.”

And yet, the song from that war, “Pomp and Circumstance,” can be heard at just about every American graduation ceremony. Odd, yes? We came across this fascinating Vox video explaining the connection:

The military march was composed in 1901 by Sir Edward Elgar for the coronation of King Edward VII. Because the empire expanded so much during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901 — including the annexation of South Africa in search of gold and diamonds — lyrics to “Pomp and Circumstance” were based on the growth and strength of the empire. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you might recognize the name of the piece from Othello.

But to understand why “Pomp and Circumstance” is associated with graduation, we need to look at the 1905 Yale University commencement ceremony. A music professor, Samuel Stanford, organized the opportunity for Elgar to receive an honorary degree. Many of Elgar’s more famous pieces were played at the ceremony, including “Pomp and Circumstance.” And while ceremonies today play the piece as graduates walk in, the piece actually concluded the 1905 ceremony, according to a WRTI Radio article.

So what started for us with The Lost History of Stars has taken us on a journey from the Boer War in South Africa to a Yale commencement to the high school graduation you might be going to this week. When the graduates start walking in, keep in mind this unusual story.

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