Contrapunctus XI

This is part of the sky imaged by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field — an effort to peer to the very limits of the Universe. Because of the finite speed of light, the farther into space we look, the farther back into time we see. Everything in the image above is a galaxy. Most of them are nearby, but a few — appearing as faint red dots that would have to be arrowed to notice clearly — are galaxies as far as 13 billion light years away. We see these objects as they were when the Universe was young and galaxies were just beginning to form. All these galaxies are there when you look up on a clear night, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes, but nevertheless present by the hundreds of millions. There are many ways we might perceive the edge of forever; Hubble has brought it to our eyes… Image credit: Hubble Space Telescope.

Contrapunctus XI, the conclusion of this quartet of double and triple fugues, is one of AOF’s great moments. This is a gigantic triple fugue tightly linked with Contrapunctus VIII.

In this fugue, Bach permutes the subjects of Contrapunctus VIII in three ways. First he inverts all three subjects. Second, he introduces them in a permuted order — subject 1 of Contrapunctus VIII becomes subject 2 here, 2 becomes 3, and 3 becomes 1. Here are the present subjects in the order they appear.

Finally, Bach also inverts all three of these subjects over the course of the fugue — recovering the subjects of Contrapunctus VIII and leading to six themes spinning around one another.

As with Contrapunctus VIII, Bach wastes little time in bringing in all his subjects. The second subject appears at 0:59, and the third at 3:15, about halfway through. The proportions of this fugue are thus almost identical to those of Contrapunctus VIII, and are arranged very differently from those of Contrapunctus XIV.=

This fugue recalls Contrapunctus III not only in its affekt but in the recurrence of a motive used in that fugue:

Does this fugue “carry the cross” in the manner of Canon 11 of BWV 1087? Both the gravity of this piece, as well as the references to it, musically and structurally, in the rest of cycle, suggest to me that Bach must have accorded it special prominence in his thinking. Though it is of huge proportions, it never reaches the glory of Contrapunctus XIV, rather being content to bruise itself in bizarre, remote chromaticisms, especially in the last two minutes. Though this fugue exceeds all others in AOF before it in scope, it would be a most unsettling conclusion to the cycle, had Bach chosen to end it here.

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