The Art of Fugue
With Contrapunctus VIII, we begin a quartet of enormous fugues illustrating the technique of combining multiple subjects. All the fugues thus far have been based on variants of the main AOF theme presented at the start of Contrapunctus I. Now Bach begins introducing new subjects, and the results are spectacular.
Contrapunctus VIII is a triple fugue, employing three subjects. Here they are, in the order they appear.
The first two both trend downward and introduce a number of chromatic possibilities into the harmony. The third is a sturdy variant of the AOF subject. The second subject appears at 1:04, and the third at 2:32, and in keeping with the requirements of a triple fugue, all three subjects are combined simultaneously.
That technical assessment, however, hardly does this fugue justice. The development of the first two subjects is a somewhat lighthearted matter, but once the sharply contrasting third subject comes in, the music simply explodes with energy. It is an amazing display of panache, densely packed with the subject material and with dramatic, angular episodes and accompanying material.
This fugue is tightly linked with the fugue that concludes this quartet, Contrapunctus XI, in which Bach inverts all three of the present subjects to come up with a fugue with a completely different character.
This adds another link in the set of fugues that “point” to 11, an unmistakable example being the motivic material and chromatic countersubject in Contrapunctus III.