John Nagy ’00M.A. | December 26, 2016
One day about halfway through his work as the main carpenter on the Notre Dame organ, Andreas Schonger wiped out while training for a mountain bike race and broke his collarbone. The accident was bad enough that firefighters had to carry him out of the forest.
Soon after the surgery to mend his cracked clavicle, Schonger was back on his feet in pursuit of two other favorite but verboten pastimes: jogging and remodeling his home. He got a stern lecture from his doctor about that, but otherwise the news after his post-surgery X-rays was good. Thanks to the metal plate screwed into his shoulder, the injury was healing.
Back at work that summer of 2015 at Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders, Schonger behaved himself more appropriately to his attenuated physical condition. He’d consult each day as needed with the new carpenter and the summer apprentice about cut lists and techniques and then return his attention to gilding the pipe shades that were arriving from the carver in Germany — quiet work that Schonger would have had to tackle sooner or later. So he spent hours each day in Fritts’ second-floor office sanding, priming and painting. Each carving received a coat of bright red oil-based enamel paint that would help the evanescent squares of 23-karat gold adhere to the wood and gleam more vividly — especially from a distance. Then he applied the sheets themselves with special brushes, his fingertips and cotton.
When you added up the time required by each step, a single shade could take more than a day from start to finish. The basilica’s organ has dozens of them, creating a façade that Fritts says is inspired in part by the design that master builder Arp Schnitger used in 1719 for his last organ inside the Sint-Michaëlkerk in Zwolle, Netherlands.
It may be that same balance of adventurous spirit and patience through adversity that brought Schonger to the United States in the first place. Growing up on a farm near the small Bavarian river town of Dillingen an der Donau, Schonger learned early how to work with his hands. He learned to play the piano “a little bit,” but didn’t really stick with it. Instead, it was carpentry that led him after high school to an apprenticeship at Sandtner Orgelbau, an organ-building shop in town — and to study at Germany’s only trade school for the craft.