Thoughts on Composer Pronunciations

How do you pronounce Bach? Debussy? Schoenberg or Lutoslawski?

Unless you met the composer, it is probably slightly different than I or someone else says it.

We Americans tend to be very pretentious about our pronunciations. I’m all for accuracy and being correct but if you’re more worried about the aspirated ‘ch’ in Bach than in practicing his music, there’s a problem!

I have played with people from other countries and they generally say the composer’s name in their accent. In one ensemble in graduate school, I was the only American. Names were pronounced differently but if everyone understood, it was fine and we moved on. So why can’t we say names with our accent? It just happens to be an American English accent rather then French or Italian. And did you ever introduce yourself to someone from another country? You say your name and they say it with some linguistic rules from their language, but it’s not a problem.

A few years ago I had a student from Poland. I asked her how to pronounce Chopin and it wasn’t even like our pretentious way of saying it. So, in this case, the correct Polish pronunciation was different than how us Americans are trying to pronounce it. So who is ‘right’?

Now, what should we do?

• Try to be somewhat faithful to the original language. For example, no one pronounces the ‘J’ in ‘Janacek’ like ‘jello’ – it has the ‘Y’ sound. But then again, we probably don’t get the vowel and accents correct – but the effort is there without overdoing it.

• Listen to the classical music station as they tend to be very well informed people and see how they pronounce it.

• Right or wrong, don’t dwell on it. Say the name and move on – unless there’s a compelling reason not to. For example, I was once corrected on the pronunciation of Poulenc. I asked how he knows and my teacher responded with, “Well, when he introduced himself to me.” Touche. He wins.

• Focus more on your playing and musical skills. They speak volumes.

• Listen to the people around you and go with the general consensus – even if it is incorrect (like Chopin!). It will make life easier and you can concentrate on your playing.

Thanks, and as Gyorgy Ligeti didn’t once say, “Go Practice!”.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Composer Pronunciations

  1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
    Peter ?

    Many Russians have anglicised their names

    George Balanchine (choreographer)
    Giorgi Balanchivadze

    I think as long as you make an effort with foreign names.

    Pizzicato or is it pronounced pitza car toe?



  2. With Russian names a rule is that if the `o` in a name is not stressed then it is pronounced `uh`. For example, Mussorgsky is roughly pronounced: MUHzuhrgskyi. Tough one that. When the `o` is pronounced it`s more like the `or` sound, as in `lawn` or even `mower`. Hence Shostakovich is: ShuhstaKAWveech. Russian names are tough, not least because it`s often impossible to guess where the stress is. Eg. Borodin could be any of 3 pronunciations and still sound plausible. It`s `BuruDEEN`, believe it or not. (And Tolstoy is (roughly) – wait for it – TulsTAWY`.)
    I`m tired of hearing presenters still saying Verdi`s name as `VURdee` when it should be an Italianate `VAIRdi`. And to be more pedantic, Mozart is not, as he is universally pronounced on any channel you tune in to, MOWtsart. The first syllable is a brief `MOH`, so: `MOHtsart`. In other words the `MOH` isn`t a diphthong. (Had he been English it no doubt would have been.)
    I once spent a pleasant evening with a young Slovakian woman who tried to teach me the correct pronunciation of Dvorak`s name. It`s roughly `DVORRzhak`, but no matter how many times I attempted the accented `r` (the `ZH` sound) it was never quite right to her native ears.
    In the end, one of us had to die.

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