Today in the Berkshires, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and Daniel Chester French, even humorist Josh Billings, are all celebrated. As writers and artists they left behind tangible works. In an era before recording, however, woe to the performer who charmed audiences of his own time, but could leave nothing behind. Such was the fate of Lenox's Frederic William Rackemann, a virtuoso pianist of the mid-19th century.
It takes a local performance at Ventfort Hall of a modern, young Australian pianist and composer, Emili Rackemann, to rekindle the story of her neglected ancestor.
Frederic Rackemann (1821-1884) grew up in a musical family in Bremen, Germany. As a 14-year-old, barely tall enough to reach the pedals, he was helping support his widowed mother by playing the cathedral organ and teaching piano.
At that same time his older brother Ludwig, also a musical prodigy, was captivating European audiences playing triple concertos with Felix Mendelsohn and Clara Wieck. Escaping the notoriety of a public feud with rival Robert Schumann, Ludwig Rackemann emigrated to the U.S. in 1839. He had supported Clara's father in his legal effort to stop the teenaged Clara from marrying the charismatic Schumann. One of the first pianists to tour America, Ludwig Rackemann caused a sensation playing works by Beethoven, Chopin and List.
When their mother died in Bremen in 1842, the younger brother Frederic joined Ludwig in New York. Critic Henry Watson observed Frederic's "great power and stretch of finger" and declared that the 21-year-old eclipsed all other New York pianists, including his brother. Befriended by the Sedgwicks, Haggertys, Tappans and Samuel and Anna Ward, Rackemann began coming to Lenox. As these families acquired pianos, the rooms of their country houses were filled with his music.
What was the future for this musician of Bremen? "I hope Rakeman (sic) will not go to Europe," wrote Samuel Ward to Caroline Tappan. "Shall you not be sorry to lose his music -- he would not like to have me ask you that as if he were only a piano -- shall you not be sorry to lose so grand a friend?"
He did not leave, but rather cemented his ties to Lenox when in 1855 he married Bessie Sedgwick, the daughter of the retired Clerk of Courts, Charles Sedgwick. Her mother Elizabeth was still operating her legendary girls' school at the old family house, known as The Hive, where Rackemann occasionally taught music and German. He chiefly performed and taught piano in New York City in the winters, while summering in Lenox, and contributed to travel abroad on concert tours. Contemporaries described him as "a fire of genius."
Rackemann's son Charles' diary, now owned by the Lenox Historical Society, gives a window into the family life in 1874. As Lenox became an increasingly chic summer resort, the Rackemanns, like many local families today, rented their village house, The Hive, which stood on Kemble Street next to today's Kemble Inn. In May after desperate preparations of repapering and painting for the summer tenants, they moved down to a humbler rented farmhouse on the Stockbridge Bowl. From here 17-year-old Charles enjoyed ferrying his father across the lake to give piano lessons to the Tappans at Tanglewood.
Rackemann also began speculative building, helped perhaps by another brother, a Boston architect. First, in 1879 he constructed a house on an open site overlooking Laurel Lake, which the Rackemanns called "Nowood" as a joke on their friends and relatives' place names of the time -- Highwood, Tanglewood, Linwood. In 1882 Rackemann built a second house on the Old Stockbridge Road, which he quickly rented to the Sloanes while they were overseeing the nearby construction of their stately, shingled mansion Elm Court.
During his later years as a landlord, Rackemann continued to play the piano and gave concerts to raise money to repair the Lenox Academy building on Main Street. When he died in Lenox in 1884 the Valley Gleaner wrote "Mr. Rackemann, though personally very quiet and retiring, has done much for the development of Lenox in social, artistic and material ways .his loss is much to deep for words. The town at large will appreciate its loss more and more."
The old Sedgwick/Rackemann house, the Hive, was demolished in 1903 for the Alexandres' spectacular Beaux Arts residence Spring Lawn, but the two houses Rackemann built survive as inns today. The first, much-altered Nowood, is Seven Hills on Plunkett Street, and the second, moved to a new site but little changed on the exterior, is Brook Farm Inn on Hawthorne Road.
Rackemann's magnificent Danish piano was enshrined for years in the big reading room at the Lenox Library, where he was an early trustee and fund-raiser. Given to the library by his son in 1926, the Landscultz piano was cherished and even restored in 1964. But in recent years as the memory of this brilliant performer and public-spirited dynamo faded completely, the piano was de-accessioned.
On Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2:30 p.m., the talented composer and pianist Emili Rackemann, who grew up in rural Australia and descends from the same Bremen Rackemann family, will revive the memory of this forgotten genius in a performance entitled "Piano inside a Birdcage" at Ventfort Hall.
Cornelia Brooke Gilder is co-author of "Houses of the Berkshires" and "Hawthorne's Lenox."