Hard Luck Innovator - Herr Ernst Denhof
by Charles A. Hooey
There once was an impresario known as Ernst, and another named
Tom. They shared the same dream, had the same focus and both
thought opera should become part
of the British scene, perhaps even that citizens should hum arias now and then!
No easy task, then or now. Each managed great things but they shared a common
fault ...they both lost money. That mattered little to Tom for he had a reserve,
but to Ernst, this was a vital concern. In the end, as "Sir Thomas Beecham," Tom
became his country's most hallowed musical force, while "Ernst Denhof" slipped
An immigrant from the Swiss-Austrian border area, Ernst came to live in Edinburgh
in the early years of the last century. It is said that back home as a believer
in music, he had organized a variety of events so, once he felt settled in his
new post, he began harboring like thoughts. By 1910 he had a plan and how exciting
it was! He had likely attended the historic presentation of Wagner's Ring in
English at Covent Garden in January 1908. Now he wanted to do the same in Edinburgh
as the first offering outside of London, and if enough interest was shown, he
would present it twice! It was a grandiose plan for certain, especially for a
Most local newspapers thought he was daft! The TIMES took note on 8 March: "What
makes a remarkable project still more remarkable is that it is due neither
to the action of any organized body nor to the whim of a music-loving millionaire,
but is entirely the outcome of the energy and enthusiasm of one man, Mr. Ernst
Denhof, a local musician, whose first venture into the ordinarily thorny paths
of operatic speculation this is. Unsupported by any guarantee, and unaided
unhindered) by a committee, he has worked out all the details of the scheme
himself...Briefly, the idea was to secure the services of all or most, of the
singers who had taken
part in the English Ring performances at Covent Garden, to engage the
Scottish Orchestra and to entrust the musical direction to Mr. Michael Balling,
who, on the recommendation of Dr. Richter, had conducted at the last Bayreuth
Festival. Mr. Denhof, at the same time announced a number of provisional engagements,
indicating the rates of subscriptions."
Four days later, the Nation said much the same: "It looks, however, as
if the impetus is to come not from London or Birmingham but from Edinburgh.
have waited to doomsday before any of our ordinary operatic companies produced
the `Ring of the Nibelung' on a proper scale. It has been done during
the past couple of weeks in Edinburgh, the motive force being Herr Ernst Denhof.
He has, of course, had incredible difficulties to contend against. Some of
them were inevitable; others might have been avoided if the venture had not
as schemes of this kind always do, the jealousy of people who will do nothing
themselves, but are always ready to throw cold water on the plans of more earnest
and energetic men. Nor, if report speaks truly, has Herr Denhof had the support
from the press of his own town any man engaged in so fine a work as this should
have been able to count upon with confidence."
To make his scheme more practical, Denhof managed to align himself with the Carl
Rosa Company. Their people could be vassals in the Ring together with
members of the Edinburgh Choral Union and choirs of both Messrs Kirkhope and
Moonie. He could also present Carmen, Faust, Don Giovanni, Tannhäuser,
Merry Wives of Windsor and Marriage of Figaro, interspersed amongst
his Ring segments.
Denhof announced that veterans from the London Ring would form the heart
of his cast, Amongst the notables: Agnes Nicholls would sing Brünnhilde
and the mighty bass Robert Radford would sing Hunding and Fasolt. Through the
good offices of the Berlin Opera, both members of the Maclennan family would
appear: tenor Francis as Siegmund in Valkyrie and as Siegfried, and
his wife, Florence Easton, would sing Freia, Sieglinde, the Woodbird in the first
cycle and Gutrune. Edna Thornton was a rock solid Erda. Thomas Meux was Alberich,
Sydney Russell, Mime and Frederick Austin sang Wotan and later The Wanderer.
Michael Balling would conduct the orchestra of 82. Veteran E. C. Hedmondt would
sing Loge and handle stage direction, and new scenery and costumes created in
Germany would complete a mercurial package.
Both cycles emerged as artistic successes with the finances in the blue, slightly.
Afterwards, in deep appreciation, Lord Dunedin, Lord Justice General for Scotland,
on behalf of the subscribers, presented Michael Balling with a silver wreath
and Mr. Denhof with a silver tray, saying, "Altogether, Mr. Denhof's Ring fortnight
in Edinburgh tempts one to dream pleasant dreams of the future of opera in
this country." The small surplus led Denhof to contemplate a tour of leading
provincial cities in the coming autumn. It was a noble start!
Later that year, while Beecham remained in London wielding his baton, his Opera
Comique Company rolled into Edinburgh for the week of 31 October, early in
its seven month long tour to present a week of Tales of Hoffmann and Fledermaus performances.
In The Evening News on 1 November, Beecham was acclaimed as "an active
patron of British musical artists and composers. He is not a mercenary impresario,
but a man who spends money on his opera schemes, by which the public benefits." No
doubt Ernst enjoyed Caroline Hatchard as Olympia in Tales of Hoffmann,
recalling her work in his English Ring a few months earlier "as
one of the charming Rhine Maidens,"
With Beecham's forces soaking up most of the local entertainment budget, Denhof
decided to shelve his plans and think of the spring of 1911. And indeed he was
up and running with a three week tour that may have been of modest length, but
certainly was immense in content. He set out to present a single cycle of the
English Ring first in Leeds during the week of 28 March, in Manchester
from 3 to 9 April and finally in Glasgow from 11 to 15 April. They were "firsts" in
each case. The cast was a mixture of returnees and newcomers, the most notable
absentee being the mellifluous Maclennan.
Rhinegold, Frederic Austin (pictured) was back as Wotan, as was Sydney
Russell as Mime, Charles Knowles as Donner, Radford as Fasolt and Edna Thornton
Erda. Walter Hyde now became Loge, Charles Victor as Alberich in place of Meux.
Seiter sang Fricka replacing Marie Alexander. Fafner was Gaston Sargeant.
In The Valkyrie, Hyde now sang Siegmund, Radford powerful again as Hunding,
Austin once more was Wotan, Florence Easton returned as Sieglinde, Toni Seiter
continued as Fricka. Cecilie Gleeson-White sang Brünnhilde in Leeds but
Agnes Nicholls assumed the role in the other cities.
Next John Coates appeared as Siegfried with Sydney Russell as Mime, Austin
as The Wanderer, Charles Victor as Alberich, Gaston Sargeant as Fafner and
Thornton as Erda. As Brünnhilde, Mme. Gleeson-White sang in Leeds and
Glasgow; Nicholls in Manchester.
Finally to complete The Ring, John Coates sang Siegfried in Twilight
of the Gods, Florence Easton was Gutrune as before; Gleeson-White led off
in Leeds as Brünnhilde but Nicholls sang in the other centres. Gunther
sung in 1910 by Austin, was now interpreted by Charles Tilbury while Waltraute
repeated by Thornton. Hagen was Charles Knowles. They were a sturdy crew.
Denhof, now feeling his enterprise was maturing and beginning to turn the corner
financially, he announced for 1912 his largest scheme to date. He would present The
Mastersingers, The Flying Dutchman and Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, Gluck's Orpheus,
and as the pièce de resistance, Richard Strauss's elaborate shocker, Elektra,
first in Hull, then in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
On 26 February, the day he opened in Hull, the country was hit by a national
coal strike. For the unlucky impresario, it was yet another blow, the cruelest
A writer for The Daily Mail caught up to Denhof on opening night. "Generalissimo
...You will verily deserve a jaunt in the Riviera after this struggle, I told
this kindly, courteous impresario."... "Ah! Yes, you do not know
the rushes and strain of it! It is not over yet. I find Hull is willing, but
Yes! Am I not right? They crowd the theatre after the first night or two -
so? Eight hundred costumes or more have had to be procured for the Opera Festival
in Hull this week. Ships are on the stage, tonight; a representation of Hell
and Heaven another time; and bullocks, sheep, whippers, and snakes another!"
Setbacks be damned! He was committed. Vivid reports in Hull newspapers for the
three Wagner operas and Elektra provide an inkling of what transpired.
In reviewing the Opening Night The Daily Mail wrote, "The massive masterpiece
was given without `cuts' of any kind, and with a triumphant wealth of detail
not found outside Covent Garden on Gala nights...The dress circle was not quite
half full, boxes were taken, the pit was moderately well filled, and the gallery
showed no blank space whatsoever." Frederic Austin was benign, sad and
sympathy-compelling as Sachs... throughout the light bloom of Francis Maclennan's
as Walther was a delight...Florence Easton a maidenly Eva, with fresh and ardent
tone and dainty by-play... brilliant, flexible Maurice d'Oisly as David...
but it was conductor Balling who was applauded for his magic.
Denhof had stinted not at all. A stickler for authenticity he brought to Hull
diverse talents, such as designer and scenic artist, Herr Impekovem from Cologne,
the chief authority in Germany for costumes and period, to paint the beautiful
scenes in Denhof's productions. To reinforce the chorus in Mastersingers in
Leeds and Hull, Denhof hired members of the Leeds Choral Union, to achieve
As The Flying Dutchman, Charles Knowles sang "the majestic but somber
music with unmistakable power" while Maud Perceval Allen offered "all
Senta's music with a supreme sense of the dramatic. She never quailed from the
cauldron of sound who arose bubbling and shrieking before her, at times. Her
voice of power and tragic intensity dominated even Herr Balling's forces." Frederick
Ranalow interpreted Daland's affecting music.
The next evening in Tristan and Isolda, "Madame Gleeson-White's eminently
intellectual qualities were noticeable, in her womanly Isolda...The duet, `Night
of rapture rest upon us' afforded Madame Gleeson-White and Mr. Maclennan a matchless
opportunity. They made it seem the very delirium of love - an opium-dream, languorous
and faint with sweetness." Miss Toni Seiter, replacing Marie Brema, "was
an expert and well-graced Brangana; though the carrying power of her voice
was not on a par with its sweetness and neat production. The sinister Melot
strong portraiture at the hands of Thomas Meux."
On 28 February came the event for which everyone was thirsting, Strauss's Elektra,
sung for the first time in English. Munich-born Fritz Cortolezis, born in on
the wings of Strauss's recommendation, was at the podium. Florence Easton was
ready in the title role. Marie Brema "was engaged also by wish of Strauss
to sing Klytemnestra" but when her moment came, a severe cold kept her
away. Doris Woodall sang.
"The Old Queen - not as given by Miss Doris Woodall - but as in the Germanized
version, also is rather too clammy for our tastes - a revolting old sinner,
with `sallow, bloated face.' She is covered over and over with gems and `Talismans;'
her arms are full of armlets, her fingers bristle with rings. The lids of her
eyes are larger than is natural, and it seems to cost her an unspeakable effort
to keep from falling. " There you have it - streaky and strong, the Teutonic
foible for too heavy colouring. Miss Woodall did not wear the snakes, but (aided
by the bells in the orchestra) rattled her metal charms instead. She forgot
her `disease' and was rather too active.
As this fury-haunted Queen, Miss Woodall was impressive in the required way,
and reached a dramatic height when exclaiming through the window bars. `See
how she defies me.' Miss Woodall sang with just the right vitality of expression
...and the similar outburst of anger and triumphant laughter were brilliantly
Florence Easton was virtually perfect in the name part. A born actress, no
whit of baleful power was lost, though her voice was thin occasionally. Austin
was "impressive" as
Orestes, Edith Evans "a tender and likeable" Chrysothemnis and d'Oisly, "the
wretched interloper Aegistheus, had little to do but that little is indelible
in the memory."
"Each time applause became more deafening. Five or ten minutes had to pass
ere the onlookers awoke from the experience and filed out. We were glad to see
boxes occupied, the circle more than half full, the floor almost filled and
the galleries quite so. No single person at the first production in English in
will ever erase the impression. We took a poll of the faces. And very few had
an opinion expressed there! They were still in the throes of the excitement.
They had come, some of them, to hear unspeakable things only audacious cacophonies,
an epileptic fit in music, a fierce fancy by a Mad Mullah of Harmony with a
touch of sadism in it! They left with the knowledge that for two hours it had
their privilege to listen to music complicated, indeed, and vehement sometimes
beyond ordinary description, lurid, and passionate in colour. But it had also
gorgeous suggestions, and some few lovely achievements in the lyric line!" After
the final opera, Herr Denhof and his lieutenants were lauded for bringing "one
of the most innovatory productions ever given in the Provinces."
As the tour progressed, cast changes took place. In Manchester, Cecilie Gleeson-White
stepped into the role of Elektra without any previous experience or stage rehearsal.
Now recovered, "Madame Brema (as Brangana and Klytemnestra) shone again
by reason of intense dramatic qualities; by sheer intellectual strength she
dominated that wonderful first act of Tristan" Knowles added the
role of Kurwenal while Julien Henry excelled as Beckmesser.
In some cases, initial curiosity failed to translate into packed houses later.
In Manchester and Liverpool Elektra and Mastersingers drew quite
well initially but less so when repeated. In Liverpool, Easton's Elektra "was
memorable in its histrionic as well as its vocal brilliance. Apart from the
sensational features of this much-debated opera, its two performances failed
to make a favourable
In Manchester The Musical Times reported on Orpheus, drawing attention
to one of the country's greatest international stars, a singer supreme at Covent
Garden and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "Madame Kirkby Lunn's
lyrical powers were known to be very great, yet their true measure could not
fully be realized until one had seen her in Gluck's Orfeo." There
were visual delights too, "the solemnity of the scene by the tomb of Eurydice
(Kate Anderson) surrounded by a grove of stately cypresses, the terror and
mystery of Hades, and the bright, spring-like charm of Elysium, were most happily
By the time they reached Leeds the impact of the miners strike was being felt, "With
a restricted train service, and under the financial depression caused by so
many businesses closing down, such an undertaking, which extends to some of
towns, is bound to meet with less than it deserves. There were many vacant
seats in the Leeds Theatre Royal last evening at the opening performance of The
Mastersingers. Indeed the audience was by no means what it should have
been even making allowances for the restricted area drawn upon."
News from the financial area was not good. According to The Musical Times reporting
on the Manchester segment in April 1912 said, "The high hopes formed of
the future of opera during the recent `Denhof Operatic Festival' conducted
by (Michael) Balling and (Fritz) Cortolezis; the public support was much less
for The Ring dramas a year ago. Gloomy tidings reached us from Hull
of a deficit of over 1000 pounds and the loss of the week's run here cannot
been very much, if any, short of that figure..."
Now a lesser individual might have called it quits but not Herr Denhof. He was
not discouraged and began to think of an even longer tour. Getting wind of these
plans, Beecham decided to offer support by loaning a German conductor from his
staff, Hans Schilling-Ziemssen, and conducting on occasion himself. Ernst, still
flying high from his artistic achievements, was delighted by the offer and plunged
ahead. After all, his robust Ring in Edinburgh for the first time in the
provinces, Elektra the same in Hull, and Wagner and Strauss galore in
Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle et al made for pretty heady stuff. With Beecham,
he could expect to augment his laurels, or so he thought. He plunged ahead with
planning and gladly assumed leadership of the tour during the autumn of 1913.
This was to be an auspicious event in every way. Twenty-seven principal singers
supported by a chorus of a hundred, a ballet of twenty-four and an eighty-two
piece orchestra, backed by ten management and staff. "To cover costs, Denhof
had to rely on full houses everywhere," which was certainly unrealistic
and poor budget practice.
Playing to indifferent-sized audiences, they completed two weeks in Birmingham,
trying vainly to achieve a debut mood. They moved on to Manchester and gave
the first week of two, at which point Denhof realized he was in desperate straits.
He was £4,000 in arrears! He decided to stop right there and move to
disband the company. When he alerted Beecham, the latter's reaction was predictable.
Like the white knight on a charger or the US cavalry galloping to rescue beleaguered
settlers, he raced to the scene. That very evening after the curtain descended
on The Flying Dutchman, he addressed the troops, giving them every hope
the enterprise would continue. A week would be needed to sort matters out; then
they would re-open in Sheffield and continue till after a fortnight in Edinburgh.
Beecham turned the reins over to his man of all miracles, Donald Baylis, and
two accountants, and departed, leaving behind 240 much happier employees, and
a disgruntled former colleague.
Before he left, Beecham launched a massive publicity campaign designed to goad
the musical fraternity in Sheffield. Assaults in print upon the duty of the
citizenry to art and the artist produced the desired effect. A full house and
greeted Mr. Beecham when he arrived to conduct, and afterwards amidst oceans
of applause, there arose cries of exultant derision, "Well, Tommy Beecham,
are we musical?"
Feeling the gloom of personal failure, Ernst pondered what had gone wrong. Had
he bitten off too much in his enthusiasm? With his earlier experience, why had
he foundered in administration? He may well have asked himself why this situation
had been allowed to happen at all.
Canny expert that he was now, Beecham would have detected the flaws in Denhof's
plan. After all, what kind of new show could expect to fill every seat every
night, just to break even? Instead of throwing a hold on the proceedings to make
changes, perhaps there was no time, he let it go ahead, thinking (and hoping)
the veteran campaigner would pull it off. Ernst was left to sink or swim. When
the tour foundered, Beecham was able to rise to the challenge and stage his remarkable
revival, to his credit.
Even after he had gone, Ernst's legacy was being appreciated in Leeds, "Productions
were characterized by Mr. Denhof's invariable thoroughness; his aim has always
been not to consider how much he could dispense with, but how he could make his
performances complete." Alas, not necessarily a proven way to keep costs
His great dreams dashed, Ernst returned to Edinburgh to spend the rest of his
days as a teacher, his original occupation. In retrospect, one wonders if retaining
his German name and using "Herr" instead of "Mr." worked
against him as in 1913 relations between Britain and Germany were deteriorating.
For the facts thanks to Dennis Foreman in Nottingham and Norman Staveley in Hull
and to The Musical Times and other publications mentioned.
Published in For The Record, Autumn 2008