Contrapunctus I

On a clear night, you can see about 3,000 stars with no optical aid, but even without such aid, your vision spans a gulf of quadrillions of miles. And that incomprehensible distance is but the tiniest skip across the cosmos. Image credit: Rendering by me.

The Art of Fugue begins with the D minor subject that will pervade, in various guises, the next 80 minutes.

This “simple” fugue is about as straightforward as AOF gets. The subject appears eleven times, eight of the instances being in two identically voiced expositions (ASBT) in the first half of the fugue. Therefore, just as the subject is divided into halves progressing from long note values to shorter ones, this fugue itself proceeds from a fairly rigorous first half to a slightly freer second half. However, it never sheds its the somber character, with the soprano rising in the penultimate bar to a high B flat before settling down to the concluding D major.

While AOF in many places will be sparkling exuberance, this is not such a place. The first three contrapuncti form a serious, contemplative prelude to the largest structure of the cycle. Accordingly, I have used a spare arrangement to give this piece the timeless, eternal feel that I find a proper introduction to the cycle. The character of these opening fugues guides both one’s interpretation of an arrangement, as well as one’s mindset upon beginning to listen to the work — and will make the joyful dawn of Contrapunctus IV all the more rewarding.

As you listen to this fugue, listen for the two-note motive that pervades the sequential passages between the expositions:

This graphic just shows the rhythm, not the pitches. Don’t worry about this too much for now; file it away for future reference. (Oh, all right, if you’re curious, check out Contrapunctus IV.)

In his completion of Contrapunctus XIV, Zoltán Göncz mirrors the pause at 3:18 in the present track, as the massive quadruple fugue winds toward its conclusion, nicely tying the final moments of AOF to this opening fugue.

AOF was was written at a time when Bach was composing a number of great “cycles,” including the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) and their accompanying set of 14 canons (BWV 1087). In Canon 11 of BWV 1087, Bach inscribes Christus Coronabit Crucigeros — “Christ will crown those who carry His cross.” We should first always look for musical necessity over subtle symbolism, but it will be fun to speculate on the numbers 3, 4, 11, and 14 as we listen to AOF. The number 3, for example, refers in a number of Bach works to the Trinity, and perhaps it is not accidental that the Canon 11 inscription contains three words, all beginning with the same letter.

And speaking of eleven, apart from the final fugue, the triple fugue of Contrapunctus XI is the weightiest moment of AOF, and there seem to be many references to it throughout the cycle. For starters, the subject here in Contrapunctus I appears appears 11 times.

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