Friday, 19 May 2017

Cultural recycling

"Why every American graduation plays the same song"[sic] was the title of this video I just came across. Never having been to an American graduation, I wondered which "song" (or rather "tune") it was. I guessed Brahms' Academic Festival Overture (or at least the tune of Gaudeamus Igitur, the rousing student drinking song that Brahms recycled at the end of his piece). Alternatively, I know from my wife, who organises degree ceremonies, that Charpentier's Te Deum and Purcell's Trumpet Tune often get an airing on these occasions, too.

Anyway, I clicked play and discovered that Americans celebrate their academic successes to the tune of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 - the "Land of Hope and Glory" tune. For a Brit who associates the piece with the union jack-waving crowds at the last night of the Proms, this just felt weird.

Which it maybe shouldn't have done considering that, in the USA, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is a standard feature of July the 4th celebrations and most Americans apparently think Tchaikovsky's tune has something to do with America's inconclusive 1812 war with the British. We Brits are used to cultural appropriation happening to other cultures - heaven knows, Britain did enough of it back in the high noon of its Imperial pomp, so it's about time we got our heads around the idea that it can happen to us, too.

Personally, I'm quite happy with the discovery - I'm better disposed towards the piece, now that I know that lots of people associate it with a celebration of hard work and intellectual curiosity, not just a strain of jingoist Imperial nostalgia that's embarrassing at best and delusionally destructive at worst. Here's the vid: