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Music to my ears: 5 composers and how to pronounce them

How many foreign languages can you Handel? Shall we make a Liszt? Ok, ok, we’ll stop before you start Chopin our heads off. All punnery aside, clicking through the pages of a music dictionary like Grove Music Online, one is presented with a wide selection of head-scratching-inducing names. Here are some of our favorites:

Camille Saint-Saëns

Let’s start in late 19th-century France with composer/organist Camille Saint-Saëns. While your first thought might be something like “Saint Séance”, the most common English approximation we’ve heard is more like salsa minus the “l”. For real French people pronouncing this name, click here. By the way, Saint-Saëns is responsible for Danse Macabre, a piece you’ll hear setting-the-scene in the score of many creepy or unsettling TV shows – it is, for example, the theme music for British mystery series Jonathan Creek.

Arvo Pärt

On we fare to modern-day Estonia and the composer Arvo Pärt. While many simply pronounce this like the word part, others try to be true to the umlaut and pronounce it “pear”t. But the true Estonian pronunciation of that umlauted “a” sounds more like the “a” in our word cat. Fun fact: Pärt created a compositional style in the ‘70s called tintinnabuli. Just try not to relax while listening to it:

Henryk Górecki

Now we drift a little southwest to Poland, to visit the resting place of idiosyncratic composer Henryk Górecki, who passed away in 2010. While most people get close with “gore etski”, according to this pronunciation, the name is more properly pronounced Gooretski.

Arnold Schoenberg

You should not pronounce this Austro-Hungarian (and, later in life, American) composer’s name “Shone berg”. Depending on your rhoticity, you may be tempted to pronounce it more like “Shern berg”, when the more accurate pronunciation is somewhere between these two.

Stephen Hough

Here’s proof that you can be British and still have a name apt to confuse English-speakers, both native and learners! Most people, when first encountering the name Hough probably think “howwwww?”, when in reality it’s pronounced just like the word rough (except starting with an “h”, obviously). But there’s nothing rough about British-born composer/pianist Stephen Hough playing Rachmaninov at the BBC Proms:

There! Now you’re all set to correct your coworkers’ pronunciations during those inevitable water-cooler conversations about Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and Pärt’s tintinnabulistic Spiegel im Spiegel! For IPA transcriptions to help you pronounce the anglicized versions of these names, visit Oxford Dictionaries Online to look them up. Oh, and for the sake of completeness, it’s Sho-Pan.