The Genast family

A theatrical dynasty

Eduard & Christine Genast
Eduard & Christine Genast

Raff's eventual success came despite, rather than with the help of, his own large family. They were against his decision to become a full-time composer and could not understand his desire to give up his secure post as a teacher in provincial Switzerland. It seems clear that this disapproval clouded his relationship with them for the rest of his life and this distant attitude was inherited by his daughter Helene, who makes no mention of her father's parents or five siblings in her autobiography. This is in telling contrast to her mother's family, the Genasts, who figure prominently throughout both it and her biography of her father. Judging by Helene's account, from the first he had a cordial, warm and supportive relationship with them and in many ways they seem to have replaced his own family in his affections. This rapport was no doubt aided by their background in music and theatre and by their close connection with Franz Liszt, his mentor during the Weimar years. They were a successful and respected family in the artistic milieu of the time and, although his marriage to Doris Genast was clearly a love match, being closely associated with them would have done Raff's prospects no harm at all. The Genasts were a prominent theatrical dynasty, who established themselves in Weimar, capital of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. As the home of Goethe, Schiller and Liszt during the late 18th and early 19th centuries it had become an unrivalled cultural centre in Germany. The first of the Genasts to become prominent in the theatre was Anton (1765-1831), who overcame parental opposition to become a successful actor, first in Breslau and then Prague. There, he also took up singing as he had a fine tenor voice. In 1791 he moved to Weimar with the founding of the Hoftheater there and so came into contact with Goethe and Schiller. Goethe later installed Anton as the theatre’s Director, a post from which he retired after many years with great acclaim in 1817.

Eduard & Christine Genast

Anton's son, Eduard Franz was born in Weimar in 1797. His father, no doubt being all too aware of the insecurity of an actor's life, made him train as a confectioner and secured a position for him in the Grand Ducal bakery. A fine baritone voice, however, secured Eduard tuition with the composer Eberwein and by 1814 he had debuted in the Hoftheater in a production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Taking up the stage full time, he moved to several German cities, developing his acting skills so that his versatility as actor and singer was in great demand. He settled in Leipzig for ten years in 1818 and then moved on to Magdeburg as director of the Municipal Theatre there, before returning to Weimar in 1829, two year's before Anton's death. Taking up his father's old position as director of the Court Theatre, his productions of plays and operas were very highly regarded. He was responsible for many premières, including Raff's König Alfred, Cornelius' Der Barbier von Baghdad and Wagner's Lohengrin. He retired from the directorship in 1860 and gave up singing in public but carried on acting, finally retiring in 1864. It was as a fine actor and singer, rather than as a theatre administrator, that he was remembered. Of his performance as the Vampire in Marschner's opera Der Vampyr, Berlioz wrote: " Is he not an artist in every sense of he word? Above all a tragedian. I regretted that I would not see him play the part of Lear in Shakespeare's tragedy, which they were getting up just as I was leaving" In his early years in Weimar he wrote two operas: Die Sonnenmänner (The Sun Men) and Die Verräter in den Alpen (The Traitors in the Alps). Late in life he returned to composition with several songs and published his memoirs as Aus dem Tagebuch eines alten Schauspielers (From the Diary of an Old Actor). Eduard Genast died in 1866, whilst visiting his daughter Doris Raff in Wiesbaden. When living in Leipzig, he had married Christine Böhler in 1820. Born in Kassel in 1798, Christine was the daughter of a lawyer. She showed early promise as a performer, premièring as a pianist in Frankfurt in 1815. Her father's death the next year prompted her to accept an engagement as an actress in Prague, then a prestigious theatrical centre. She was praised for her "naturalness, charm and youthful freshness" and, having made a deep impression, with her younger sister Doris she joined the Leipzig Stadttheater, where she soon encountered Eduard who arrived in the same year. After their marriage, the family grew quickly; their son Wilhelm and two of their four daughters, Johanna and Doris, arrived within six years. As an actress Christine had a wide range; she was especially prized for her comedy roles but was also praised for the dignity and refinement which she brought to serious parts. When she died in Weimar in 1860 an obituary said of her "On all these [plays] was shed a glow of kindness and gentleness, the noblest and most tender intimacy." Her sister Doris also made a name for herself in the theatre and married the famous actor Emil Devrient in 1826.

Genast family tree
Genast Family Tree
Wilhelm, Johanna and Toni Genast

The couple's only son, Wilhelm, was born in Leipzig in 1822; he was just two months younger than his eventual brother-in-law Raff. He received an excellent legal education in Jena and then Heidelberg, before returning to Weimar in 1848. He was appointed a public prosecutor in 1852 and eventually rose to the rank of minister in the government of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and president of the Synod. Wilhelm was also active politically on the national stage and was elected as a deputy to the diet of the North German Confederation in 1869 and then to its successor the Imperial Reichstag in 1871. As a National Liberal, he supported Bismarck, but he was also well known for his vehement campaign against the death penalty. He kept up the family's theatrical connection but as a playwright, rather than as a performer. Described by Helene Raff as "earnest and religious", Wilhelm wrote several plays, the first of which was Bernhard von Weimar of 1855 to which Raff, then engaged to Wilhelm's second sister Doris, wrote the incidental music. In the same year he wrote the libretto for Raff's "Fairy tale epic" Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty). Two further plays followed: Florian Geyer in 1857 and Der Deutsche Hort (The German Stronghold) in 1863, and also two multi-volume novels: Das hohe Haus (The high House) in 1862 and Der Köhlergraf (Count Coal) in 1867. A British obituary described him as "a man of great nobility of mind and a characteristic representative of the old 'echte Weimar'". Wilhelm married Auguste Schwabe but their family life was to prove tragic because of the loss of two children at early ages and of their last son Ernst as the result of a fencing injury whilst at university. Wilhelm died of a stroke in Weimar in 1887 and, together with his parents, grandfather and wife is buried in the Genast family plot by the eastern wall of the old cemetery in Weimar.

Another of Raff's brothers-in-law from his wife's family was Professor Alexander Plate, who for many years had been the highly respected principal of the aristocratic Domschule (Cathedral school) in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia). The recently widowed Plate had married the Genast's eldest daughter, Johanna, in 1864 at the age of 57, but died only a year later. Johanna herself had been born around 1824 in Leipzig and so was about 40 when she eventually married. She was devastated by the early loss of her adored husband. Helene Raff describes her as being a "delicate, ethereal woman" whose perpetually tragic demeanour cast a bleak shadow over family gatherings. Besides recording that Johanna published a volume of Psalmen-Sprüche mit Initialen und Arabesken (Psalms and Proverbs with initials and arabesques), she mentions nothing about her aunt's life.

The Genast's second daughter was Raff's wife Dorothea (Doris).

The couple's third daughter was Antonia, whom the family always called Toni. Clearly a favourite of her niece Helene Raff, she is mentioned quite often in the latter's autobiography but the only concrete facts which emerge about her life are that she was a frequent and welcome guest of the Raff family with whom she stayed for half the year, alternating with her sisters living in Weimar, and often took holidays with them, and that she died in Weimar in 1906. From the absence of references to a husband or children it may be assumed that she did not marry and Helene does not mention her having had any occupation.

Emilie Genast

Emilie Genast
Emilie Genast

The youngest of the Genast children was Clementine Elionore Emilie. Always known by her last name, she was born in Weimar on 26 May 1833. She inherited her father's voice and became one of the most celebrated sopranos in mid-19th century Germany. Her sparkling, vivacious personality, which she retained into old age, almost captured Raff in 1853 when Doris, with whom he had fallen in love, briefly left Weimar for Leipzig. They became engaged upon her return but Raff retained a special fondness for Emilie, dedicating to her his Zwei Lieder vom Rhien (two Songs from the Rhine) Op.53 and the orchestral song Traumkönig und sein Lieb (Dream King & his Love) Op.66. She premièred several of his vocal works, most prominently Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) WoO.19, for which her brother Wilhelm had written the poem. She seems to have been no actress as there are no records of her performing in opera but her concert performances in the 1850s and 60s put her in the forefront of sopranos of the period. Her voice was described as being "a small but beautifully warm mezzo-soprano" and she "sang with exceptional artistry and personal magnetism."

It was natural that, living in Weimar, Emilie should be well known to Liszt and their relationship developed in the later 1850s to such an extent that it aroused the unwarranted jealousy of Liszt's companion, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn Wittgenstein. She wrote to Liszt accusing Mitzi, as Liszt nicknamed Emilie, of being "the sort of woman for whom a man, once he has possessed her, will commit all manner of follies". In fact, Emilie's relationship with Liszt at this time seems to have been an intimate but chaste one; she acted as his muse during a time when he was both having all manner of personal difficulties and was heavily focused on vocal writing. Many of his songs from this period are dedicated to her and were first performed by her. Even as late as the 1870s, she was one of the foremost exponents of his great oratorio St Elizabeth and he dedicated his cantata St Cecilia to her. As Liszt lay dying in 1886, Emilie was one of the few people allowed to see him by his daughter Cosima Wagner. Emilie was also a favourite of Wagner. After a day in her company in the early 1860s, he wrote "Liszt gave me Emilie Genast as a companion on one or two short excursions, an arrangement with which I found no fault, as she was witty and very intelligent." In 1862 it was Emilie, singing to Hans von Bülow's accompaniment, who gave the private première of the Wesendonck Lieder to Wagner's publisher Schott, after Raff had suggested their publication to the composer. In 1863, at the height of her fame, Emilie married the Swiss director of an Insurance company, Dr Emil Merian and moved to Basel. They had three children in quick succession before her husband became seriously ill and the family returned to Weimar, where he died in 1873. With three young children to bring up, Emilie was unable fully to resume the concert career she had before her marriage, although the public performances she did give continued to attract as much praise as before. Despite financial hardship and the stress of caring for her chronically invalid daughter Grete, she established a salon which was frequented by many musical celebrities during the rest of the century. Much chamber music was played and she sang "enchantingly" in private. She also found time to teach, write music criticism and even engage in charitable work. Helene records that "my aunt Merian always kept her vitality, her kindness and her good spirits." Emilie Merian-Genast died in Weimar on 5 March 1905 after suffering two strokes.

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