Like so many of his countrymen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British composer Edward Elgar was ardently patriotic. Combined with his natural militaristic turn (he had, after all, married the daughter of an army general) and love of ceremony, this patriotism made Elgar perfectly suited to author a long and distinguished line of Marches; ultimately, these would take a place not only in the traditional occasional music of his own country, but also in that of Britain's sister-nations across the Atlantic. The five Pomp and Circumstance marches, published collectively as Opus 39 but actually composed over a period of almost thirty years, are without a doubt the best known of his pieces in this peculiarly British genre. Though their collective title, drawn from a line in Shakespeare's Othello describing "the pomp and circumstance of glorious war," clearly allies them with the British military tradition, the musicality and variety (and even charm) of these five pieces render them enjoyable sans any nationalist association.
The first in the set, in D major (1901), earned Elgar his knighthood; it was later adapted into the Coronation Ode and given the well-known lyrics "Land of Hope and Glory." The famous trio section is as recognizable as the Union Jack, now virtually ubiquitous at high school and university graduation ceremonies. If one can put aside its over-familiarity, this is a very beautiful theme; as the composer himself described it in very unceremonious language, "I've got a tune in my head that's going to knock 'em dead!"
The A minor march that follows was composed almost simultaneously with the preceding one; it has never achieved anything like the fame of its sister-piece, and yet it is in many ways a better work. The trio in particular could hardly be a more striking contrast to the G major melody of the first march.
Elgar must have been in a particularly dramatic mood when he penned the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 3 in C minor (completed in 1904). This is no militaristic exercise, but rather a dramatic orchestral poem. Three bassoons offer vague hints of a melody during the subdued opening, but the quietude is not sustained for long, as a massive brass-laden crescendo paves the way for a broad main tune. The light theme and staccato accompaniment of the A flat major trio offer a well-earned reprieve from the physicality of the march-proper.
March No. 4 in G major, composed in 1907 recalls something of the general enthusiasm of the famous first March. The main march idea is built on a single rhythmic cell, while the C major trio is marked "nobilmente."
Almost 25 years would pass before the composer completed the fifth Pomp and Circumstance March, but upon hearing the result it quickly becomes apparent that Elgar saved the best for last. The main melodic idea is all youth and exuberance (especially considering that its composer was well over seventy at the time), and Elgar provides the trio section with a broad melody that is at least the equal of the G major tune in the first March.