“Your national anthem is worse than England’s…There is ‘Yankee Doodle’, which has words that are stark idiocy, while the music would set the teeth of a buzz-saw on edge.”
In early 1905 Sir Edward Elgar received an invitation to visit America from his friend Samuel Sanford, Professor of Applied Music at Yale University. Following his acceptance (and at Sanford’s urging), Yale officially invited Elgar to receive an Honorary Doctor of Music. On June 9 Elgar and his wife departed England aboard the liner Deutschland, arriving in New York on June 15 where they were greeted by Sanford. From there they traveled to Sanford’s splendid home in New Haven, Connecticut, situated near the Yale University campus. On June 28 Elgar attended the commencement at Woolsey Hall to receive his honorary degree. At that ceremony only fourteen candidates were granted honorary degrees, and only one was for music. Since Elgar was the only candidate receiving an honorary degree in music, that makes the choice of music for that occasion worthy of closer scrutiny.
What music was selected for such a solemn occasion? Lee Kaufman of the American Elgar Foundation was kind enough to share a copy of the commencement program. The academic procession entered to the music of Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture Op. 95, soon followed by a performance of Psalm LXV. After an address by the President of Yale, 669 candidates received their degrees. Next on the program was a performance of the Meditation and opening chorus from Elgar’s sacred oratorio, the Light of Life. After this Elgar and thirteen other candidates received honorary degrees and the ceremony concluded with a performance of Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg. As the audience exited the hall, the orchestra performed Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. From that day forward the strains of that noble march have graced graduation ceremonies across America and around the world.
What makes Elgar’s participation in Yale’s 1905 commencement ceremony remarkable is the unusual number of parallels with his Enigma Variations, a work that catapulted him to international acclaim. Consider: The proceedings began with the music of Mendelssohn, the only composer openly quoted in the Variations. Elgar’s Light of Life is a sacred oratorio about Jesus, the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII. In that movement he quotes Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, posing yet another fascinating parallel as Elgar embarked on a sea voyage across the Atlantic to attend the commencement ceremony. Fourteen candidates received honorary degrees, and likewise fourteen friends are portrayed in the Variations. Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg was performed after Elgar received his honorary degree, forming yet another astonishing coincidence as it is the covert principal melodic theme to the Enigma Variations. The lyrics for Luther’s epic hymn come from the Psalms, and Psalm LXV was included on the program. The Roman numerals (LXV) are an anagram for LUX since in Latin the letters V and U are the same. Lux is the first word in the original title for Elgar’s oratorio the Light of Life – Lux Christi. As shown on the program, Elgar was seated in chair 46. Remarkably, the lyrics for Luther's most famous hymn come from Psalm 46.
The odds of so many parallels occurring together would appear to be beyond the realm of chance. One suspects Elgar’s hand in all this, for his honorary degree was the only one granted for music. It stands to reason he would have been carefully consulted concerning what music should be performed. With such a vigorous champion in the person of Professor Sanford, Elgar’s recommendations were undoubtedly followed to the letter. Admittedly Ein feste Burg has a long tradition of being performed at Yale's commencement ceremonies, so it is more than likely Elgar had no direct input regarding that particular selection. Even so, the striking number of parallels with the Enigma Variations is tantalizing. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.