Contrapunctus X

The galaxy M82 in Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) is a curious beast. Multiwavelength observations reveal not only the usual disk, but also a huge burst of high-energy emission from the galaxy’s core. Part of the galaxy’s appearance is due to — you guessed — interaction with a large nearby neighbor, the spiral M81, but part of it is another reason. Lurking at the heart of many galaxies, including our own, is an enormous black hole. The one in M82 may be several thousand times the mass of our own Sun; other holes may be several millions of solar masses. The violent explosion visible in M82 above can only be seen when we observe the galaxy in X-rays or other parts of the spectrum our eyes cannot detect. To the naked eye, in visible light, M82 looks innocuous enough, but its hidden interior profoundly affects its appearance and evolution. Image credit: NASA / HST, Spitzer Space Telescope.

After the lighthearted Contrapunctus IX comes a double fugue with significant connections to other parts of the cycle.

To get things started, Bach introduces a new subject, a distant variant of the third subject of Contrapunctus VIII.

This subject has a “jabbing” character that I feel lends itself well to the sharply marcato interpretation on the great organ I have given it here. It enters rapidly in all four voices, using rectus and inversus forms. But then, at 0:36, the AOF subject variant from Contrapunctus V returns:

This introduces a central section of the fugue with a more pastoral nature, in clear contrast to the declamatory opening. Snippets of the main subject try to return periodically (listen for them in the swell organ), and eventually they do take over, leading the fugue back to its more sharply defined nature — both with both components singing in swirling arcs around one another.

This fugue is related to other parts of the cycle. The tumbling episodic material at 1:20 and 1:58 recalls the later episodes of Contrapunctus V. Even more significant is a brief passage at 0:36, at the transition between the “outer” and “inner” part of the fugue. It goes by so fast as to seem almost an afterthought, but here it is, bridging the parts in the bass voice:

AOF addicts will recognize this as a verbatim quote of the first part of the second subject of Contrapunctus XIV! Moreover, in the soprano above it is the main AOF subject, in the variant in which it will appear in the satisfactory completion of the final fugue. Given that this bridge could have been written following correct fugal procedure in a number of ways, I would speculate (and that’s all this is) that this fragment is a hint by Bach to the end of the cycle, and the manner in which the final theme would have appeared.

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