Where is the elephant?

June 8, 2011 at 03:46 AM ·


yesterday I wa steaching a fairly young student some unaccompanied Bach and her mother asked me what was the central concept in understanding and performing Bach.   Fortunately I had an attack of `buriitis` at that veyr moment and realized the answer was precisely `Look for the elephant walking underneath.`   (If you can`t figure that out don`t play bach)

This seemed so profound to me I would like to ask people for moments in their lives which centered around looking for the elephant walking underneath.   Possibly along the lines of `You know you need to look for the elephant walking underneath when....`



Replies (60)

June 8, 2011 at 04:16 AM ·

`You know you need to look for the elephant walking underneath when....` you are playing Bach! There also happens to be birds flying in the sky when you are playing Bach. There are questions only to be answered by questions when you are playing Bach. There are also times to stop and smell the roses when you are playing Bach.

Am I on the right track Buri? Analysis of Bach can go on for a few more hundred years. Surely I can't cover it all in a forum post!

June 8, 2011 at 04:37 AM ·

I think you are baching up the right tree.

June 8, 2011 at 08:12 AM ·

It can feel it when I play 'Baby elephant walk' by Mancini. It is very profound, possibly a life changing moment.

June 8, 2011 at 10:48 AM ·

African or Indian?

I say African


June 8, 2011 at 12:40 PM ·

...perhaps you should have added 'and see an okapi, the time-space continuum, last nights dinner - in short anything but'

June 8, 2011 at 02:48 PM ·

German composers and pachyderms. Splendid! I haven't the slightest clue in bloody Hell what this thread is about, so here's a picture.

June 8, 2011 at 03:04 PM ·

Wonderful metaphor. The "elephant" is, I think, an inference - something that is suggested but isn't explicit. It's a germinal melody or motif of which all of the other melodic lines are a piece of. Think about the entire Bartok 4th Quartet, in which there is one melody "hovering" over the whole piece, and every melodic fragment seems to infer it, but every time you think you hear it, it reminds you of another melodic section of the Quartet. I think Bach is the same way, and when your inner mind (whatever that is) identifies that inferred elephant, it just hovers, like a continuous question that is always there but never quite visible, but every line in the piece seems to link to it.
Is it something like that?
--- Or is it hidden in the trunk? (I hope this discussion doesn't turn into another circus)
--- If you take all of the elephants walking underneath Bach's music, how far will the line stretch?
--- Can the elephants be trained? Are they afraid of mice?
--- No wonder Bach worked for peanuts.

June 8, 2011 at 03:05 PM ·

The elephant in the room ? Obvious. Chamber music.

June 8, 2011 at 04:08 PM ·

But can I see the elephant if I am inside it?

June 8, 2011 at 04:42 PM ·

I don't catch the meaning of looking for the elephant...

However, I would tell that the elephant will work much more willingly for you if you use peanuts unstead of a stick...

In addition,

Elephants have a huge memory

Elephants are wise

Elephants have no neck and are very much under the effect of gravity

Elephants are masters at feeling "vibtrations" (no jokes it's true!)

Gee... they have everything to play the violin  : - )


I just saw Sandy's definition... thanks!

June 8, 2011 at 05:14 PM ·

If an elephant fell during a Bach performance would it make a nose?

June 8, 2011 at 05:27 PM ·

Or maybe you are being more litteral - both Bach and the elephant walk with a steady and very precise rhythm...

June 8, 2011 at 06:09 PM ·

I think it is more that Bach is, well, Bach! Why look for hidden meaning, when the meaning on the surface is such a rich tapestry!

June 8, 2011 at 06:19 PM ·

Sei Solo a Violino senza Elefante accompagnato

like the little prince book, is it a hat or is it a hidden elephant in a snake

June 8, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

Elise, but violinists too would make noise if they fell during a Bach's performance... : )  Only, the "kaboom" would be a little smaller... 

June 8, 2011 at 06:36 PM ·

Yes, Anne-Marie, but would anyone notice?

June 8, 2011 at 07:02 PM ·

Why elephants?  Chickens like Bach.  At least that's what they are always clamoring for... bach, bach, bach, bach (flapping my arms)

June 8, 2011 at 07:24 PM ·


listen to the g minor presto played by smoneone great.  There are definite elephant ffotsteps occuring.  The chicken wings are all that is flapping above.



June 8, 2011 at 08:06 PM ·

I don't understand this thread.



But whatever you do, DO NOT think about a pink elephant.

June 8, 2011 at 08:12 PM ·

It's hiding behind Waldo...

June 8, 2011 at 08:35 PM ·

elephants shmellifants.

if you want to count the beats for baroque, use a-bachus...

Thank you, thank you thank you. 

Bows gracefully and horsetails out of here....

June 8, 2011 at 11:36 PM ·

When..............the mice plague goes squeak, squeak, squeak, and then they scatter as the elephant begins his walk, bom...de bom...de bom. Avoiding to be squashed, the meeces run between the elephants stomps.......squeak, bom, squeak.....squeak, bom, squeak, etc,.

The elephant quickens his stomps....bom,bom,bom.......and the mice run faster....squeak,squeak,squeak. Bom,bom,bom,bom,bom,bom.....bommmmm, and the ground is clear of meeces, except for a few straglers....squeak, bom, squeak, bom, squeak, bom...............................


To be continued.........................stay tuned.

June 9, 2011 at 12:01 AM ·

If you listen to vln solo Bach played properly, I think you will hear the metaphorical "elephant."  At least some of the solo Bach movements. I think that is the Elephant" Buri means. If you can hear it when you play - so much the better.

The pachyderm rules!

Other times? Well out here in California - when the earth rumbles or slides. In the midwest right now, I fear it's water, too much water. 


June 9, 2011 at 12:45 AM ·

Interesting metaphor.

The tendency in playing Bach is to concentrate on all the filigree and lose the bone structure (or the walking elephant) underneath.  After hearing one particularly intelligent reading of some of the Bach unaccompanied cello-phant suites some years ago, I believe a healthy pachyderm is critical to the performance & understanding of Bach.

June 9, 2011 at 12:47 AM ·

<<<<I think you will hear the metaphorical "elephant.">>>>


The elephants continue thier walk....................


They are well known to possess long. long memories, and they know exactly thier destinations. Unlike the meeces which have need to scatter in all directions, the elephants tread the well worn path, even to thier final resting place................

June 9, 2011 at 12:53 AM ·

 It means: get out of the way, this thing's bigger than you!

June 9, 2011 at 01:34 AM ·


I also just realized that when you mess up the #$%& that hits the fan is considerably larger than average.....



June 9, 2011 at 05:02 AM ·

Howdah you play unaccompanied Bach ? I am beginning to get the elephant connection. At last.

Ectchuelly, tzer strong underlyink harmonies to understandendt tzer secret ist.

June 9, 2011 at 05:59 AM ·

Elephants are colossal and sturdy , their movements are secure but they can move with speed.Their legs are four columns that hold up the harmonic contents moving and modulating with ease meanwhile thier trunks represent the freedom of melodic flow as they siren their joy.Reminds me of Gaudis Sagra Famiglia in Barcelona.

June 9, 2011 at 06:37 AM ·

Unfortunately, when some folk play Bach they sound as if they are crashing through the undergrowth .. uprooting trees with reckless abandon. The musicologists amongst them trumpet ceaselesly. You can keep your feet just as firmly on the ground if you think "rhinoceros" IMHO. 

June 9, 2011 at 07:56 AM ·

I think Buri was inviting other examples of unexpected inspiration.  I have none to offer.  I did a while ago write in my S&P Urtext "The secret of playing Bach is...", in the hope of collecting answers as well as autographs from the great and the good.  So far I have had one of the latter and none of the former.  However meanwhile I came up with my own answer, which was "...in the bass line".  I think this is Buri's meaning, though he puts it so much better.  I would offer a slight improvement: "..the elephant dancing underneath".  Of course it is well known that elephants can't jump, so perhaps can't dance either - unless listening to Bach?  My own performances are regularly criticised as being not sufficiently dance-like.

June 9, 2011 at 09:23 AM ·

The bottom line is .....yep......THE BASS LINE.

June 9, 2011 at 03:11 PM ·

Thank you so much, Buri!  Now I hear Bach differently...

June 9, 2011 at 03:38 PM ·

 this kinda reminds me of the saying that if you have to ask the price you probably cannot afford it.  

for those parents who question the teachers on what is the point of this and that,,,i have a solution:

raise the tuition:)

June 9, 2011 at 04:38 PM ·

The elephant is not the bass line !!!
The elephant is the underlying motif.
The 800 pound gorilla is the bass line.
The boa constrictor is the polyphony.
The ocelot is sonata form (which doesn't even figure into Bach).
Do you think that this kind of discussion is what inspired Saint-Saens to write you know what?


June 9, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·

but no sorry, its a stampede now! what is nice about the original was its surreal minimalism, now you open up the doors of the zoo. bach as tarazan. contro control, go bach to the elephant!

i read somewhere, i think the author was joel lester, that - well i'm paraphrasing it in my way so apologies if i'm not being not exacting- the deliberate mentioning of  "without accompanying bass" in the  title of the composition is to draw attention not simply to the absence of the unbiquitous basso continuo but also to the suggested line, harmonic and melodic, of the bass strung between the bursts of deeper sonorities. so, in effect, if i follow that logic, that would imply that the elephant is only imagined out o the sum of its tracks. ah, good, the performer as an elephant-tracker. in that case, even finding dung is not such a bad thing...unless it hits the fan? occupational hazard maybe

i am not a musicologist let alone well versed in music, but i didnt think "motif" applied to the ways of thinking in baroque music, each variation stands on its own and shifts horizintally from its predecessor whereas motif implies there is a leitmotif with vertical significance which allows the music to build up around it or ebb away from it . please correct me if i'm wrong, i find this very interesting.


June 9, 2011 at 08:31 PM ·

 @ Tammuz Kolenyo, "without accompanying bass" actually means without basso continuo, i.e. a viola da gamba or cello playing a bass line plus a keyboard contributing harmonies, reading from chord symbols called a "figured bass". This continuo principle was the uniting feature of music of the baroque era.

When the German composers from Biber onwards wrote for violin without continuo they were careful to ensure that the writing was harmonically complete, if sometimes rather sketchily represented. It's this ongoing harmonic logic that's the REAL elephant IMHO. The bass-line IS there if you know where to look (or listen) !

June 9, 2011 at 09:05 PM ·

Elephant ConChoco Grosso, does that taste nice?

June 9, 2011 at 09:30 PM ·

Sarah: Is that an elephant dipped in black chocolate, like those ahhhh strawberries?

June 9, 2011 at 09:39 PM ·

@Elise: It's similar, but grosser.

June 10, 2011 at 05:58 AM ·

 Re:- The Grumiaux clip.

He was a great player, and yes, they DID play that movement just like that on those days ! But a MS I saw (and presumably the same one Carl Flesch based his edition on, too) has incomplete, short barlines every other bar. That means, there are 12 little notes (we call them semiquavers in the UK) before the next real downbeat after the start.

Grumiaux (and Menuhin in an old recording) accents after every 3 notes, sounding as if the piece is in compound 6/16 time. Do others on this thread hear it that way ? I think the movement should dance more. A gazelle, not an elephant !

June 10, 2011 at 11:23 AM ·

I hear it as does Grumiaux - makes more sense to me musically.

I suspect Bach knew what 12 8 sounded like, and would have written the Presto in 12 if he had wanted the notes grouped in four sets of three rather than three sets of two


June 10, 2011 at 03:25 PM ·

 @ Graham,

I suspect Bach knew what 12 8 sounded like, and would have written the Presto in 12 if he had wanted the notes grouped in four sets of three rather than three sets of two

Well, I listened again and still heard 2 groups of 3 semiquavers in each Three-eight bar, as if compound-time six-sixteen were the time signature. Rather too much like an Irish jig for my taste ! Maybe the wax in my ears is tuned to first-position D on the A string. (It's different later on in the piece). But if Buri has gotten you, Joyce and I hearing the great Bach differently, indeed, at all, then his elephant has clearly been a stimulus.


June 10, 2011 at 03:42 PM ·

I guess I didn't get it, because my first response had to do with moments in time regarding my children..


June 10, 2011 at 04:52 PM ·

all joking aside - this topic has really opened my eyes.  I listened to four or five (sonata1, presto) versions and tried playing it myself (really fun to try to sight read).  I could sight read the first half page - the notes were there but it simply did not sound like music.  Bizzarre. 

I listened to Grumiaux's version again (which I liked the best) and noted the the precise and regular first beat of each bar.  When I emulated that it suddenly came alive for me.  Not kidding. 

Is that the elephant's tread I seek Buri?

June 11, 2011 at 04:42 AM ·

Bach was supremely excellent at voice leading.  The flow of that voice is the elephant. That's what moves you.

June 12, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·


Elise, that`s only the footprints in the butter.



June 12, 2011 at 05:29 AM ·

In the UK lots of folk, enchanted by the meerkats in a TV ad, go out and get themselves meerkats as domestic pets, only to find that these social creatures weren't happy kept as individuals. Other problems arose too.

I do hope this thread's not going to encourage the adoption by enthusiastic violinists of elephants as domestic pets. I feel strongly that the problems would far outweigh any perceived benefits. 

Get a dog instead, but be warned that "His Bach is worse than his Bitehoven".

June 12, 2011 at 12:04 PM ·

So, I just got a heffalump shadow eh?  Did anyone above get close? 

June 12, 2011 at 07:53 PM ·


Elise, thanks for sharing that with us.  I should have pointed out in my original post ,  oh Beamish,  that  when hunting for Snarks one should take care not to catch a Boojum,  you see.



June 13, 2011 at 09:51 AM ·

@ David,

Well, I've had another listen  to the Grumiaux as well, and realised I could place the beat in either place.

How much of what we hear do we construct ourselves, I wonder? Probably at least half....


June 15, 2011 at 01:58 AM ·

Buri... one too many riddles I think... I'm lost

June 15, 2011 at 03:54 AM ·



`The Hunting of the Snark,` by Lewis Caroll.  Aside form a fine work of literature it is also,  apparently a coded study of probability in mathematics.  For me, that would be the elephant poo bit.



June 15, 2011 at 04:22 AM ·


Good point. Hear the first "d" as an accent and the brain locks in to groups of 3 semiquavers ! Irish jig. Hard to readjust, then.

Had I a pupil I'd recommend accenting the first notes of each bar, but with special emphasis on the first of every other measure. Elise was on the right track. A bit of a push on the 4th. semiquaver and you have a definite 3/8, not 6/16.

June 15, 2011 at 04:59 AM ·

This thread reminds me so much of the "Blind men and an elephant" parable... :)

June 15, 2011 at 06:20 AM ·

 "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned."

So said the wise King.

June 15, 2011 at 10:43 AM ·

 except people who touch the ear may have more fun than people at the back end...

June 15, 2011 at 11:04 AM ·

 ......tusk tusk !

June 15, 2011 at 11:28 AM ·

well, I touched the footprint in the butter - which is snarky since I can at lleast lick my fingers...

All we can be sure of is that the first beat is a part of the elephant.  And since we've said that thrice and, as far as I am aware, none of us disappeared, its not a Boojum at all.

June 16, 2011 at 03:16 PM ·

Weren't there elephants walking underneath in Disney's Fantasia?

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