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Like a man writing his own obituary Dmitri Shostakovich composed his String Quartet No. 8 as a requiem for himself, weaving it together with an autobiographical motif consisting of the letters D-S-C-H.

These letters — the first four of D. Schostakowitsch, the German spelling of his name — are translated to musical notes as D, E flat, C and B. The quartet opens with the cello playing the funereal sequence, which is then mournfully intoned by the other strings. A solo lament unfolds over a low drone before the other voices join in the plaintive dialogue. The piece includes multiple autobiographical references to previous works, including quotations from his First and Fifth Symphonies in the first movement.

The Jerusalem Quartet will perform the work on Tuesday evening, alongside the 4th, 10th and 11th Quartets. The ensemble’s series of four concerts featuring Shostakovich’s complete cycle of 15 string quartets begins on Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet in 1960, while visiting the ruins of Dresden, which was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in 1945. He was on assignment to write a score for “Five Days, Five Nights,” a film about the bombardment. While in Germany he completed the quartet in three days.

There is a duality to much of Shostakovich’s music, an outer veneer that broadcasts one message and an interior that conveys another, with censors and audiences at the time interpreting the scores according to their own predispositions.

The published score of the Eighth Quartet included the subtitle “To the Victims of Fascism and War,” although some scholars, and Shostakovich’s children, have maintained that he didn’t write the subtitle himself. On one level the Eighth can be heard as a narrative of Soviet repression and wartime destruction. “But even this public piece that deals with something collective is a very personal piece, in a way the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony is not,” said Ori Kam, the Jerusalem’s violist.

“The quartets in general are a window into Shostakovich’s soul,” he added.

Along with many other artists at the time Shostakovich faced constant censorship and scrutiny, his music denounced as “formalist” by the Soviet authorities and banned on several occasions. Even a listener knowing nothing of the historical background of the works might well assume they were written in a climate of fear, discernible from the frequent evocations of paranoid shadows and scurrying footsteps anxiously woven through many of his works. Much of his music attains panic-inducing climaxes, as the Eighth Quartet does in the second movement.

This section is trademark Shostakovich. Frantic repeated motifs escalate with nerve-shattering intensity, reflecting the mind-set of a man who in 1948, when expecting to be arrested, slept by the elevator in his apartment building so his family wouldn’t be startled by a knock on the door in the night. Shostakovich often wove Jewish themes and folk songs into his music, an increasingly dangerous interest during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns during the 1940s and ’50s. In the second movement of the Eighth Quartet he quotes a Jewish theme from his Piano Trio No. 2.

Sardonic waltzes, like the eerie one that unfolds in the third movement, are another Shostakovich trademark, this one based on the D-S-C-H motif. He also refers to a cello concerto written the previous year for Rostropovich.

The three urgent fortissimo chords that open the fourth movement against a low drone and resurface later in the section evoke the bombing of Dresden, a plaintive melody later unfolding like a requiem for the dead. Shostakovich refers to the revolutionary song “Tormented by Harsh Captivity” and an aria from his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” which had been withdrawn from the stage after its denunciation by Stalin.

The five movements are played without pause, “a beautiful arc that encompasses the depth of the human experience,” Mr. Kam said. The final movement echoes the first, using the D-S-C-H motif in a somber fugue.

The work’s accessible and communicative language has helped render it the most popular of the 15 quartets, with stark emotional qualities as shattering as those of the late Beethoven quartets. Listening to them is certainly an intense experience, but Mr. Kam, who has performed the complete cycle with the Jerusalem Quartet on several occasions, said that while he thought the audience might want to hear a “nice Haydn or Mozart” quartet afterward, “that by the second concert the music communicates to the audience in a way it couldn’t when just one quartet is programmed.”

“The Sixth Quartet is probably the only one I could say is optimistic,” Mr. Kam said. “But I don’t see the Eighth as depressing. I see it as very charged. It goes very deep into a person, into his inner world.”

According to Mr. Kam — who is of Russian descent but is the only member of the Jerusalem Quartet not born in the former Soviet Union — “the palettes of expression in Russian culture are more multifaceted than what we are used to in the West.”

He continued: “We think of sad as a negative thing, but for Russians there is a beautiful sad that is also cathartic. Every emotion is more multilayered in its meaning.”

“You leave these concerts feeling like you know the man,” Mr. Kam added. “It sounds like a good sales pitch, but it is amazing. I saw the music differently after doing a cycle. No other composer embodies the period and place he lived in like Shostakovich. The Eighth Quartet is a piece of art that expresses that moment.”

March 15, 2013

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