03/20/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2016

20 Classical Music Names You Are Probably Mispronouncing

Everybody wants to be a classical music connoisseur. But when it comes down to it, it's not only difficult to grasp the style and sound of the world's most famous musicians and composers, it's nearly impossibly to pronounce their names.

Some are visually daunting (Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, for example) while others are short brain busters that have you second guessing the annunciation of a six-letter word (ahem, Frederic Chopin). Who wants to be caught fawning over "Ride of the Valkyries" whilst referring to the musical mastermind behind it as Richard Wagner with a pronounced double u? The answer: no one.

So, to help our readers along the daunting path to enlightenment, we've compiled a list of 20 classical music names you are probably pronouncing... wrong. Read our suggestions for spitting out the tongue twisters, soak them in, practice them in front of the mirror. Only then will you be the confident classical music snob you've always wanted to be. Go forth and annunciate.

Note: There are, undoubtedly, more ways to pronounce these names. Our suggestions are, for the most part, based on the International Phonetic Alphabet for English speakers, but we'd love to hear how you pronounce some of the musician and composer names in the comments.

1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Let's start out with an oldie but a goodie -- the man who brought us "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake." Tchaikovsky's name is often anglicized so you have two options. For a pronunciation closer to its Russian origins: PYAW-tr Ihl-YICH Chuh-KOFF-skee. For the easy way out, Peter will do.

2. Claude Debussy

This 19th/20th century master of chromaticism is famous for his version of "Clair de Lune." So how do you say his name? Well, the whole thing is Achille-Claude Debussy, pronounced Uh-SHEEL Klode Duh-bew-SEE. Tip: watch the "a" in Achille, which lands somewhere between pat and bra, and the "u' in Debussy which has no English equivalent.

3. Franz Liszt

Liszt was an icon of the "Neudeutsche Schule" ("New German School") who composed the "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C- Sharp" we know so well. When discussing his symphonic poetry, you should carefully say Frahnts List. Bonus: try inserting the German phonetic "ʁ" (sort of like loch) before the "a" in his first name.

4. Felix Mendelssohn

Oh, Mendelssohn. How we love your "A Midsummer Night's Dream" soundtrack. We love it so much we're going to correctly pronounce your name Fey-liks Men-dle-SZAWN. Or, you know, just Felix Men-dill-son.

5. Gustav Mahler

Goo-STAHF MAH-ler wrote one of the "Symphony No. 5" pieces you adore. Not Mailer. ("Ah" like someone is sticking a tongue depressor down your throat.)

6. Ludwig van Beethoven

This one is relatively easy. In fact, most kindergartners know that the man behind a certain ninth symphony's "Ode to Joy" is not pronounced "Beeth-oven." But, just in case, the correct pronunciation for an English-speaker is: LOOD-vig vahn BAY-toe-vuhn. (Note: the "oo" should be pronounced like good or woman.) For those with an urge to try the German pronunciation: LOOT-vik fahn BATE-haw-fuhn.

7. Frederic Chopin

Honor the Romantic-era Polish composer famous for preludes and etudes by pronouncing Show-PEHN. The French would be easier on the "o" and hardly pronounce the "n," in case you're feeling fancy.

8. George Frideric Handel

Nothing celebrates scriptural text like HEN-Duhl's "Messiah." Please, no Handle.

9. Joseph Haydn

Another two-syllable trickster. When weighing the good and bad of "The Seasons," you should refer to its composer as HIE-duhn.

10. Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg was a painter, composer and theorist who taught the likes of John Cage and Leon Kirchner. His name is pronounced SHOON-berg.

11. Maurice Ravel

Easy. The mind behind "Jeux d'eau" is Moe-REESE Rah-VEL.

12. Camille Saint-Saens

Bet you can't listen to "The Carnival of the Animals" without wondering how to pronounce the prolific composer's name. It's Kahm-EEY Suhs-Sahns. Watch the last "a" -- try like croissant.

13. Richard Wagner

VAHG-ner. Let "Ride of the Valkyries" play you out.

14. Igor Stravinsky

"The Rite of Spring" sounds so much sweeter when you know how to pronounce EE-gor Strah-VIN-skee.

15. Antonin Dvorak

AHN-to-neen DVOR-Zhahk is that 19th/20th century Czech composer who often incorporated the folk sounds of his home country into his work.

16. Bela Bartok

Celebrated as one of the founders of ethnomusicology, this Hungarian composer's name is BAY-lah BAR-toke.

17. Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev arranged a beautiful composition for the children's tale "Peter and the Wolf." The correct pronunciation of his name is Pro-KOE-fee-yeff.

18. Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rakh-MAWN-een-off is perhaps the easiest way to phonetically illustrate the name of this Russian composer, famous for pieces like "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Remember, Russian words usually have only one syllable emphasized, so the rest should be rather quick.

19. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Here's another long one: Nee-koe-LIE REEM-ski KOR-suh-koff. Now go listen to "Flight of the Bumblebee."

20. Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina

We wish more female composers (and more diversity, in general) filled the ranks of music history archives, but until then, here's how to pronounce 20th century Russian composer Soe-FEE-yah Ahs-guh-TOVE-na Goo-bye-DOOL-na.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart = MOAT-zart. Johannes Brahms = Brahms! Johann Sebastian Bach = Bawkh. Dmitri Shostakovich = Shaw-stuh-KOE-vich. Philip Glass = Just kidding.

For more pronunciation goodness, check out our guide to pronouncing pesky famous artist names.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly emphasized the second syllable in the pronunciation of Bela Bartok's surname.