The Crackup

Classic Arts Features   The Crackup
One night St. Louis Symphony musician Anne Fagerburg was at the top of the stairs of her home in University City, holding her cello. A moment later, she was at the bottom of the stairs, her cello beneath her. Help was a phone call away.


"I was about to go to dinner with friends," Fagerburg recalls, "but I was so traumatized that I could not go out that night. I couldn't stop shaking." She knew her instrument had been seriously damaged. "The bridge exploded, the tail piece was off, the sound post was cracked. When the bridge exploded, it gouged out other pieces of wood." Within the hour, Fagerburg called Andreas Krause. "For people with really fine instruments, there really is nobody else to take it to," says Fagerburg.

Krause lives and works in University City. He's known through the grapevine of musicians, both in St. Louis and internationally. "People come from all over the world for restoration work," Krause says. Over the years he has worked with most of the string players in the St. Louis Symphony, "except double bass," he says modestly, "I'm too skinny for double bass."

Krause not only knows string instruments, he understands the relationship between musician and instrument. "Anne called within the hour it happened," he says. "She was very distraught. Musicians and instruments are one unit. It is their companion.

"To land on a cello and crack it up badly," he adds, "is not a good thing."

Fagerburg's cello has been a part of her since she was a teenager. "I've played the same cello since I was 19. I have a lot of difficulty playing an instrument that is not my own." Her cello's history is part of her history, her upbringing, her family, a constant that has been with her throughout the changes in her life. "We grew up incredibly poor," she says, "but my mother's mother had money. We inherited her house and in the course of a month we all bought instruments. And then the money was gone.

"My cello is an Emile Guerra, from 1929, made in Turin. I got it when I was so young. I never had any desire to get a different instrument. Guerra didn't have much of a reputation when I bought my cello, but he does now."

"Her cello is one of the nicest examples of that maker," Krause says, "it was in mint condition before. I didn't know the exact steps I would have to take. The biggest problem was the top: cracks from the bottom to the sound post. These instruments are so delicate; if some a part of it is a millimeter off, it causes vast changes of sound." In Krause's workshop is the top of a 250- year-old violin he is restoring. It is as light and fragile as a crab's shell.

Sometimes, to patch a crack in an instrument, Krause can rely on glue. "Hide glue," he explains, "this stuff has been around for 3,000 years and it still works best. It pulls the wood together so tightly that you don't see it. It actually strengthens the wood around it." But gluing is not a simple process. "You have to work very fast. The glue needs to be hot, and you add it every couple of minutes. You glue in steps, which is one of the things the cast allows for."

Whether Krause patches with glue or with wood: spruce for the top, maple for the back: he must create a plaster-of-Paris mold for the instrument. The mold is very heavy, and "you must be very careful with the support or it may crack the instrument more," but the cast allows Krause to place pressure on the instrument to glue, to gouge, to plane, to scrape, to sand.

For a patch, Krause uses a "solid piece of well-seasoned spruce." He holds in his hand a rectangular piece of wood. "This is probably 170 years old. You need a good stock of old wood on hand."

Krause gouges away at the wood patch, slowly, delicately: he has an array of gouges and planes of different shapes and sizes and weights close at hand, "otherwise you'd scrape forever": and then scrapes and sands to achieve a patch that is "feather-edged, very round, very strong." As with every part of the process, success is defined by fractions of a millimeter. "If a patch is too thick it will dampen the sound," says Krause, "too thin and it won't have power and may eventually crack."

Fagerburg was invited to visit Krause's atelier at regular intervals to review the work, and received photos of the process via e-mail. She stayed away during the actual work however. "It's like watching your body being operated on," she says. "I would have been traumatized to watch him scrape."

After four-and-a-half months of playing a substitute cello: retired STL Symphony cellist Robert Silverman loaned Fagerburg his instrument: Fagerburg had in her hands an instrument that was practically new to her. "After it has been taken apart and put back together," Fagerburg says, "it takes a while for a cello to start vibrating normally. It's a little stiff, like your joints are when you haven't warmed up. Also, the space between the strings was different from Bob's. I had to readjust to a new instrument. It took a month to feel comfortable with an instrument I'd played since I was 19."

For Krause, it's all part of the subtle manipulations of the life found in wood. "It's a living material," he says, "so it will change from day to day, from season to season. These instruments are living creatures. It's amazing what's going on in there."


Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the St. Louis Symphony.

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