Open main menu

Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) is a one-act ballet by Frederick Ashton, to the music of the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma Variations), Op. 36, by Edward Elgar. The work was first given by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, on 25 October 1968. It has been revived in every subsequent decade.

Enigma Variations
ChoreographerFrederick Ashton
MusicEdward Elgar
Premiere25 October 1968
Royal Opera House, London
Original ballet companyThe Royal Ballet
DesignJulia Trevelyan Oman
SettingWorcestershire, England, 1899


Elgar's variations portray, in his words, "My friends pictured within", celebrating, and in some cases caricaturing, members of his circle. He commented to one of them, Troyte Griffith, years after the premiere that if the variations had been written by a Russian rather than an Englishman they would long ago have been turned into a ballet.[1] It was not until six years after the composer's death that an attempt was made to do so, by the choreographer Frank Staff for Ballet Rambert in 1940.[1] Staff's ballet focused on the mood of the variations rather than on the personalities who inspired it.[1]

The idea for Ashton's ballet originated in the early 1950s, when the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, then still a student, submitted designs for a ballet to be based on Elgar's music. At the time the idea was not taken up, but in the 1960s Ashton had come round to it, and invited Trevelyan Oman, by then a rising star of theatre design, to collaborate.[2]

Ashton used the whole of Elgar's published score, with the exception of the finale, for which he went back to the composer's original ending. When completing the score in 1898, Elgar had been persuaded by his publisher (portrayed as "Nimrod" of the variations) to add a further 96 bars to the ending. With the permission of the Elgar estate, Ashton used the shorter version, previously unheard by even the most dedicated Elgarians.[3] The playing time of the ballet is about half an hour.


The piece shows an imaginary gathering of Elgar and his friends at the Elgars' house in Worcestershire. The composer, at this point in his career struggling and little known, is awaiting a message from London. While they are waiting, the Elgars and their friends are portrayed in dances representing their personalities. After the last of these, Ashton contributes his own "enigma"; a telegram arrives: the characters know, but the audience does not, that it is from the celebrated conductor Hans Richter agreeing to conduct Elgar's new work. There is an exuberant finale.[1]

Ashton, drawing on a commentary written by the composer in 1929,[n 1] included in the programme alongside the cast list the notes in the third column, below. The words in quotation marks are by Elgar.

Theme (andante) Edward Elgar (E.D.U.)
Var. I. The Lady – Elgar's wife (C.A.E.) "Whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration."
Var. II. Hew David Steuart-Powell (H.D.S-P.) One of Elgar's chamber-music cronies.
Var. III. Richard Baxter Townshend (R.B.T.) An amiable reedy-voiced eccentric who rode about on a tricycle.
Var. IV. William Meath Baker (W.M.B.) "With a slip of paper in his hand forcibly read out the arrangements for the day and hurriedly left with a bang."
Var. V. Richard Penrose Arnold (R.P.A.) Son of Matthew Arnold, a quiet contemplative scholar.
Var. VI. Isabel Fitton (Ysobel) Charming and romantic
Var. VII. Arthur Troyte Griffith (Troyte) A very close friend, outspoken and brusque though "the boisterous mood is mere banter."
Var. VIII. Winifred Norbury (W.N.) "Her gracious personality is sedately shown."
Var. IX. A.J. Jaeger (Nimrod) This variation recalls a summer evening's talk about Beethoven and, further, reveals the depth of a friendship.
Var. X. Dora Penny (Dorabella) "The movement suggests a dance-like lightness." An intimate portrait of a gay but pensive girl with an endearing hesitation in her speech.
Var. XI. George Robertson Sinclair (G.R.S.) Or rather "his bulldog Dan who fell into the river and barked rejoicing on landing. G.R.S. said 'Set that to music.' I did; here it is."
Var. XII. Basil G. Nevinson (B.G.N.) "An amateur cello player of distinction – a serious and devoted friend."
Var. XIII. *** (Lady Mary Lygon) "The asterisks take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage."
Var. XIV. Finale "E.D.U. (Edward Elgar) " "Written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging as to the composer's musical future", this variation is merely to show what he intended to do. References to Alice Elgar and to Nimrod, two great influences on the life and art of the composer, are entirely fitting to the intention of the piece.

Original castEdit

Source:Royal Opera House performance database.[5]

Critical receptionEdit

In The Times, John Percival wrote, "There have been plenty of ballets about love, but friendship as a subject is rare, and Ashton finds rare and moving expression for it. … What a pleasure it is, after so many ballets about fairytale characters and melodramatic situations, to see credible, adult characters like these on the stage of the Opera House."[1][6] In The Observer, Alexander Bland found the character of Elgar himself remained ill-defined, but thought the work ideal for "Ashton's delicate water-colour talent and his inimitable gift for inventing short flowing variations, and it is a fine vehicle for the smooth, soft Royal Ballet style."[7]

One dissenting voice was that of Bernard Levin in The Times, who wrote that the choreography did not enhance one's appreciation of the characters depicted in the music, but impeded it: "it was like those television sports commentators who carefully tell us what we have just seen."[8] In 2002, Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker of "a number of central-casting English eccentrics running around in tweeds and brandishing ear trumpets. But the center of the piece is Elgar, and Ashton has fleshed out his portrait. … No other ballet choreographer has examined normal emotions with such sophistication."[9]


The ballet has been revived by the Royal Ballet in each decade since the premiere. At 2013 the most recent production was in November 2011 as the central item in a triple bill with Liam Scarlett's Asphodel Meadows and Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria.[10]

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit


  1. ^ Notes for the Aeolian Company's piano rolls of a transcribed score of the piece. Posthumously republished in 1946 as My Friends Pictured Within.[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e Percival, John. "Ashton and the quality of friendship", The Times, 26 October 1968, p. 9
  2. ^ Cargill, Mary. "Lincoln Center Festival; Ashton Celebration July 6–17, 2004 – "Enigma Variations", Dance View Times, 4 July 2004
  3. ^ Ward, David. "Enigma of Elgar Variations finale on record at last", The Guardian, 16 April 2003, p. 8
  4. ^ Rushton, Julian (1999). Elgar: 'Enigma' Variations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 110. ISBN 0521631750.
  5. ^ "Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) – 25 October 1968 Evening", Royal Opera House, accessed 31 March 2013
  6. ^ Percival John. "Looking at Ashton's Enigma", The Times, 2 November 1968, p. 19
  7. ^ Bland, Alexander. "Ashton and Elgar", The Observer, 27 October 1968, p. 27
  8. ^ Levin, Bernard. "Go take a running jump", The Times, 10 October 1988, p. 16
  9. ^ Acocella, Joan. "Life Steps: The Frederick Ashton Centennial", The New Yorker, 2 August 2004, pp. 84–85
  10. ^ Anderson, Zoë. "Royal Ballet Triple Bill", The Independent, 23 November 2011