Of all the Emerson String Quartet’s achievements during its 41-year existence, one that gives Philip Setzer special pride is its early and vigorous advocacy for the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. These days, when performances and recordings of most of the composer’s 15 quartets proliferate, that doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But, Setzer said during a recent interview from his New Jersey home, even as recently as 25 years ago performances of anything other than the always popular Eighth Quartet were rarities, especially among American ensembles. “One of the things I’m proudest of with the [Emerson],” Setzer said, “is that we were one of the first American groups to champion it and play all of it.”
Often while performing Shostakovich quartets, Setzer, one of the Emerson’s two violinists, had the sense that “these pieces are little plays with four characters,” and his role was as much dramatic as musical. That insight led to “The Noise of Time,” a 2000 theatrical treatment of Shostakovich’s tortured life told in nonlinear fashion, centered on the Emerson’s performance of his 15th and final quartet.
During that production, Gerard McBurney — a scholar of Russian music and the brother of the show’s director, Simon McBurney — asked Setzer if he knew “The Black Monk,” a Chekhov short story that fascinated Shostakovich and that he tried to make into an opera at multiple points, including during the last years of his life. Setzer had never heard of the Chekhov story, but he filed it away in the back of his head, thought about it from time to time, and let it undergo the kind of gestation that ambitious, unconventional projects usually require.
The eventual result was “Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy,” created by Setzer and writer-director James Glossman. The show seeks to unlock Shostakovich’s obsession with “The Black Monk” by interweaving the story with his own biography. The show premiered at the Great Lakes Chamber Festival in Michigan in June, and it comes to Tanglewood on July 19, with a cast that includes David Strathairn, Jay O. Sanders, and Setzer’s wife, Linda.
Where “The Noise of Time” centered on Shostakovich’s 15th Quartet, most of the music from “Shostakovich and the Black Monk” comes from the 14th, the most accessible of the final three, which together form a skeletal triptych in which mortality is a frequent undercurrent.
“There’s no proof for this, but I’m convinced that some or maybe a lot of the music that was in his head for the opera went into his last two quartets, especially the 14th,” Setzer explained. Part of his evidence for that claim is a remark Shostakovich made about the quartet in which he refers to a certain stretch of music as “the Italian bit.” That music bears more than a passing resemblance to a once-popular serenade by the Italian composer Gaetano Braga, and that piece plays a significant role in Chekhov’s story. And Shostakovich had at some point made an arrangement of the Braga serenade, presumably for the opera he was never to complete.
So what is the story that cast such a long-lasting spell over the composer? “The Black Monk” centers on a young academic, Kovrin, who, in ill health, goes to an orchard to visit an old mentor and his daughter, Tanya, with whom he falls in love. One night Kovrin sees an apparition of a monk, dressed entirely in black, come drifting across the orchard, making Kovrin feel inexplicably happy.
The monk begins to visit him frequently, feeding Kovrin’s ego and telling him how special and unusual he is. This eventually drives Kovrin mad, and Tanya (whom he has since married) sends him away for treatment. He is cured but finds himself bereft, longing for the madness that made him feel unique, better than everyone else. At the end of his life, sick with tuberculosis and no longer with Tanya, Kovrin is visited one last time by the black monk, and dies “with a blissful smile on his face.”
It is, Setzer said, “a really creepy ghost story,” but he thinks the key to its appeal to the composer is Kovrin’s realization, at the end, that he was happier being mad than being a functional member of normal society. Ever since Shostakovich incurred Stalin’s wrath for the modernist tendencies of his music, the composer was forced to walk a very fine line between accommodation to his rulers and preserving the compositional voice whose very expression might endanger his life.
“To give the devil even a small part of your soul is a huge loss, and the guilt is something Shostakovich suffered the rest of his life,” Setzer said. “He played a very dangerous game and I have tremendous respect for him and his courage, but he did make compromises and had to live with that. Kovrin compromises too and in the long run, he loses himself.”
Setzer and Glossman have layered the two stories — Chekhov’s and Shostakovich’s — together in a phantasmagorical way, against excerpts from Shostakovich’s quartets and (of course) Braga’s serenade. The three-movement 14th Quartet is played complete, though in a fragmented way: The first movement is the show’s overture; the second begins with an ethereal violin solo that’s played as the backdrop to a monologue by Irina Shostakovich (Linda Setzer) about her husband; the last movement ends the show, as the fates of Shostakovich and Kovrin become mysteriously entwined.
“I think that if it works,” Setzer said of the show, “the reason is that, rather than that we figured out how to do the action and then we put the music to it, it’s that this is all springing out of the music. It’s because the genesis is from the right place.”
Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy
Presented by the Emerson String Quartet. At Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, July 19, 8 p.m. Tickets $34-$56. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org