Enigma Variations programme notes

The origin of the music the 'Enigma' Variations could not have been more casual. In 1898 Elgar was still teaching the violin, and on the evening of the 21 October he returned home after a hard day to dinner, a cigar and improvisation at the piano. After a while he stumbled on the 'Enigma' theme, and his wife Alice immediately expressed approval. He then extemporised further, galvanising the tune into hectic energy so that it reminded Mrs Elgar of 'Billy Baker'. So was born the idea of variations illustrating 'friends pictured within'.

When the piece was first performed, the original programme notes by Elgar explained that he had sketched, 'for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncracies of 14 of my friends, not necessarily musicians'.

'From the first performance I saw I have always loved it'

Peter Wright

In 1953 when Julia Trevelyan Oman, then a student at the Royal College of Art, was in hospital suffering from typhoid fever, the idea of a ballet based on Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations occurred to her. She completed some designs for costumes and scenery and showed them to her professor, Hugh Casson. He encouraged her to write to Ninette de Valois, then Director of The Royal Ballet, which she did, leaving the folder of drawings at the stage door of the Royal Opera House. After six months with no news, she requested the return of her drawings.

However, Frederick Ashton had seen her drawings and when, in 1967, he was searching for a subject for a ballet, he remembered them, and her covering note written in brown ink. He telephoned her to ask if she were the person who had left the drawings all those years before. When he was reassured, he asked to see them.

Ashton immediately decided that he would like to go ahead with the ballet - for the beginning of the 1968-69 season ­- with Oman as its designer. She agreed, as long as she could begin the project again: she did not wish to use designs she had created some dozen years earlier. Oman and Ashton decided that the ballet should be set in Elgar's Worcestershire at the time of the composition of the music (1898). In a programme note Ashton explained:

'Some time before the action of the ballet takes place, Elgar had sent the score of the 'Enigma' Variations to the famous conductor Richter in the hope of interesting him in the work. The characters, intimates and friends of the composer dance their individual variations, at the end of which a telegram arrives from Richter, addressed to their mutual friend Jaeger, agreeing to conduct the first performance.'

'A great, great ballet'

David Bintley

Oman went to immense trouble to authenticate all the period detail. She even tracked down a bicycle from the collection in the Science Museum which was loaned on condition that a replica would be made if the ballet became a success.

And a success it has become. Sir Peter Wright, former Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, has said that 'from the first performance I saw I have always loved it', while his successor David Bintley, who brings the piece back for this season, has admitted being brought to tears the first time he saw it: 'I remember just thinking it was a great, great ballet'.

Birmingham Royal Ballet last performed the ballet in 2004, and this season marks a welcome return for these old 'friends'.