Wilhelmine Therese Dorothea Genast was born in Leipzig on 12 August 1827, the daughter of Eduard and Christine Genast, a family with a theatrical background and close associations with Goethe. In 1833 Genast became director of the Weimar Court Theatre and the growing family settled there. Doris, as she was always called, was the second of four sisters, but the only one who took up acting as a profession, initially as one of the company in the theatre her father managed. In spring 1850, as Raff walked in a park, he was captivated by the sight of a "tall, beautiful young woman, strikingly pale in appearance" but it was only when he was invited to join his employer and mentor Liszt in a visit to the Genast home did he know the mystery girl in the park to be Doris. Although she was slower to recognise it, by the end of 1850 their attraction was mutual and Raff became a regular visitor to the house, spending Christmas Eve with the family. Although Doris left Weimar to take up a post at a theatre in Dresden, the couple still maintained their relationship and became engaged in 1853. Shortly afterwards Doris moved again, this time to the Court Theatre in the spa city of Wiesbaden, which proved to be a much more congenial position for someone whose health was sometimes fragile. Raff himself remained virtually penniless in Weimar and for the time being marriage was out of the question, but they corresponded daily until 1856 when Raff finally left to join her. With his growing reputation in Wiesbaden, his teaching and private tuition income, added to Doris' income from acting, they finally achieved modest financial security and married in a private Catholic ceremony on 15th March 1859. Well aware of Raff's inability to manage money, Doris had spent her single years in Wiesbaden saving as much as possible from her salary, causing Liszt to remark "the woman's a heroine." Later that year Doris suffered a miscarriage which, coupled with her anaemia, caused Raff to fear for her life, but she recovered and returned to the stage.
Though Wagner called her "a rather insignificant woman", Doris was evidently an accomplished and versatile actress with an enviable reputation, and she continued to perform throughout their remaining eighteen years in Wiesbaden. The Raff's were never wealthy and her careful budgeting was crucial to the stability of their finances. Wagner reported: "by extraordinary thrift and good management [she] succeeded in raising her husband's position of careless wastefulness to a flourishing and prosperous one". Sometime after Raff's death, she confirmed this to his pupil Edward MacDowell: "I took over the entire practical side of life for my husband". Her habit was to call him simply "Raff" but it was by all accounts a loving and happy marriage. They had only one child - their daughter Helene was born in 1865 and both parents doted on her. Although her father was a respected baritone, her youngest sister a well-known soprano and her husband a composer, she was not deeply musical herself, but for Raff Doris personified the artistic public for whom he wrote. He said that she "embodied the educated section of the public for me". Though she was far from being Wagner's disparaging "the little woman", she did see her role as supporting her genius of a hard-working husband. Helene's biography of her father emphasises that Doris Raff was so able in managing the household finances and other affairs that her husband became more and more detached from anything other than musical matters.
After more that a quarter of a century on the stage, at 50 she was happy to gave up acting when they moved to Frankfurt in 1877 and settled into the role of wife of the prestigious Director of the Hoch Conservatory there. Raff's heart attack early in 1882 came as a great shock to her - the more so when his doctor made it clear than he would be unlikely to survive another. She was not with him when the inevitable occurred in June that year - she had gone to bed whilst he finished some work and he died alone, leaving Doris to discover his body the next morning. Raff's death marked a sudden change in her fortunes. He had made no provision for her and their daughter's financial security after his death, instead relying on continuing royalties from his music. The Board of the Conservatory generously granted her a widow's pension but it soon became apparent that this would be insufficient and her income dwindled. She was now too old to resume her acting career, so she and her daughter quickly moved to a smaller apartment, but then unwittingly became embroiled in a bitter dispute between the Conservatory and some of its former teachers whom Raff had appointed. There remained nothing for her in Frankfurt and within a year of her husband's death she and Helene moved to Munich at the suggestion of a cousin, who had recently moved there herself. The swift posthumous decline in Raff's reputation not only greatly upset her, it meant that she had difficulty in interesting publishers in his unpublished catalogue and gaining much-needed income from it. Helene was a talented artist but it proved a struggle to finance her studies. Doris Raff lived the rest of her long life in Munich and died aged 85 on 7 November 1912, 30 years after her husband, just as his reputation reached its nadir.
Helene Raff, the couple's only child, was born in Wiesbaden on 31 March 1865 - six years after their marriage. From an early age she demonstrated artistic tendencies, which probably came as little surprise with a composer and an actress for parents. They decided that she should be tutored privately and not attend school - this led Henrik Ibsen to describe her later as "A child of nature", avoiding state, school and church. Her parents doted on her and by her account it was a happy, loving family in which to grow up. She showed talent both as an artist and a writer. Her father, with whom she took daily walks, set three substantial works to her texts - Die Tageszeiten (The Times of Day) Op.209 (1877) and Die Sterne (The Stars) WoO.53 (1880), both for choir and orchestra, and the song cycle Blondel de Nestle Op.211 (1880). The use of the pseudonym Helge Heldt for the author disguised them as the work of his teenage daughter, however, and in later life Helene herself was disparaging about her youthful efforts. Raff's early death on 24 June 1882 was a terrible blow. She and her mother Doris soon found that they were short of money and within a year they moved from Frankfurt to Munich. Once settled in Munich it soon became clear that Helene leaned towards a career as an artist, particularly portraiture, and Doris had a continual struggle to raise money to enable her to pursue her studies.
It was whilst staying with her friend Emilie Bardach in Gossensaas in the Austrian Tyrol in October 1889 that Helene encountered Henrik Ibsen, the world renowned Norwegian playwright. Helene was rather scornful of Bardach's passionately platonic friendship with Ibsen, but as soon as she returned to Munich she took to loitering outside Ibsen's house there until she could engineer a "chance" meeting. For the next 18 months, until the Ibsen's returned to Norway, Helene was the second of his three "princesses" - young women with whom he enjoyed highly charged, but chaste friendships. He regarded her as "youth personified" and wrote: "how healthy you are - and yet at the same time so delicate". Although initially flirtatious, he soon turned paternal - "My wife is truly, cordially fond of you - and I too... Alas, if only I had such a dear and lovely daughter". Perhaps, once Helene realised that their relationship would remain only a friendship, this paternalism was part of Ibsen's continued attraction for her. After all, he was only six years younger than her own father to whom she had been close before his early death and who had also been an artistic genius. One of her attractions for Ibsen was her determination to make the most of herself - she had some success as a painter and began writing seriously too. She learned Norwegian so as to appreciate his plays all the more and she wrote an unpublished and now lost Ibsen Diary. When he sent her from Norway a copy of one of his plays, he wrote "Helene Raff! A voice within me cries out for you".
After the Ibsens left, she remained in Munich and became modestly successful as a portrait artist, but in the 1890s she began to doubt her abilities and, encouraged by the famous writer Paul Heyse, her earlier literary skills began to reassert themselves. It was as a writer that she eventually built a lasting reputation and an important place at the centre of Munich's literary establishment. She developed a particular interest in folk legends and the 1900s saw the beginning of a flow of magazine articles, collections of stories and novels which continued into the 1930s. A significant biography of her patron Heyse appeared in 1910, and amongst her successful novels were Der Findling vom Arlberg (The Foundling from Arlberg - 1913), Die Georgine (1920) and Regina Himmelschütz (1921). She published a biography of her father Joachim Raff - ein Lebensbild (Joachim Raff - Portrait of a Life) in 1925 and her autobiography Blätter vom Lebensbaum (Leaves for Life's Tree). Significantly, the latter finishes in 1918, and the post-WWI years were not easy for her. Munich was riven with political strife, an attempted communist revolution was followed by an authoritarian crackdown and the rise of the National Socialists. As a staunch member of Munich's Catholic establishment she was instrumental in introducing Hitler to other members of the city's high society. They both attended a dinner party in 1923, but she appears to have distanced herself from the movement and in 1933 she was amongst the editorial staff of the publisher Knorr & Hirth who were dismissed by the Nazis once they gained power, in her case on the specious grounds of "immoral lifestyle".
Helene Raff never married and had no children. She was an early feminist, joining the Verein für Fraueninteressen (Association for Women's Interests) in 1894 and from then on worked tirelessly through her writings and in more practical ways to promote the status of women in society, particularly so after the catastrophic end to WWI and during the economic privations of the Weimar Republic. From 1923 until 1933 she edited the Women's Supplement of the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten newspaper. She died on 8th December 1942, after an operation. Unusually generous obituaries attest to her warm nature and importance to her adopted city: "Helene Raff's death came as if a piece of Munich itself had suddenly been torn away. That's how much the name Munich was associated with her [...] and perhaps the most beautiful thing about her was that she knew how to give one thing above all that we all need so much and so rarely receive: joy! She had that fine mixture of humour and kindness from which only true joie de vivre is born, and she was able to transfer it very happily to others. She knew a lot, but her love for life was arguably even greater than any knowledge, and that made her strong and kept her young until her final years. Perhaps this was also what attracted so irresistibly the people who came into contact with her – she could also rejoice for others, or rather, in them, in their successes and happiness. For she was an understanding, loving comrade to all those who stepped into her circle." [With thanks to Simon Kannenberg and MUGi].