How do you pronounce “Messiaen” anyway? A quick guide to French Composers’ names.

The French have a tendency to modify foreign names in order to make them more French sounding and 300px-Saint-Saens-Camilleeasier to pronounce. We even have an official name for this : “La francisation des noms propres” or  French-ification of proper nouns.

For instance, I grew up thinking that the [n] in Beethoven was silent, just like the [t] in Schubert, and that Mozart was really pronounced [mɔ zar]. (Listen here)
Similarly, Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christian Bach, just to name these two, became Jean-Sébastien Bach and Jean-Chrétien Bach at some point along the way. (Listen here)

So it may seem ironic that this first blog post should be dedicated to addressing the pronunciation of French composers’ names by English native speakers; Who am I to talk, really? But I am a vocal coach after all, and living and working in North America, I can’t help but notice a few common recurring mistakes that I’ve been dying to correct. I guess I just can’t stop teaching. So here goes:

Camille Saint-Saëns: [ka mij sɛ᷉ sɑ᷉s] (Listen here)
This is one of the most commonly mispronounced names. Admittedly, the spelling here is very challenging; just remember that not all final consonants are silent in French, and the final [s] in Saëns is definitely NOT silent. As for those nasal vowels, please refer to a good diction book to learn more about spelling rules…there are plenty!

Olivier Messiaen: [ɔ li vje mɛ sjɑ᷈] (Listen here)
The first name is fairly straightforward, but that [aen] is unusual. It turns out that it is simply an [ɑ᷉], just like in “Saëns”.

Claude Debussy: [klod də by si] (Listen here)
The main problem with this one is with the emphasis: It should lie on the the [si], not the [ə]. And the [o] in “Claude” should be very closed, it is “claude” not “clawd”.

Reynaldo Hahn: [rɛ na ldo han] (Listen here)
This is an interesting case: Hahn was born in Venezuela from a father of German extraction. His last name is clearly German, and the [h] should therefore be pronounced. However, since [h] is not really a sound of the French language, I would not be surprised to hear this name pronounced without it by my fellow countrymen. (Listen here)

Jules Massenet: [ʒyl ma snɛ] (Listen here)
For really proper diction, there should be an extra [ə] in there, but it is dropped when speaking this name.

Charles Koechlin: [ʃarl kə klɛ᷉] (Listen here)
Another German name, but this one is much too complicated for a a French tongue.

Jacques Offenbach: [ʒak ɔ fən bak] (Listen here)
Since Bach became [bak] it is only logical (and fair) that Offenbach should be pronounced [ɔ fən bak].

Darius Milhaud: [da rjys mi jo] (Listen here)
Quite an unusual name. The most important thing to remember here is that the [lh] is really a [j].

And now here are a few names where the final letter is either pronounced, or not. There is of course, no reliable way to tell…

Francis Poulenc: [frɑ᷉ sis pu lɛ᷉k] (Listen here)
Jean Françaix: [ʒɑ᷈ frɑ᷉ sɛ] (Listen here)
Hector Berlioz: [ɛ ktɔr bɛ rljoz] (Listen here)
Charles Gounod: [ʃarl gu no] (Listen here)
Pierre Boulez: [pjɛr bu lɛz] (Listen here)
Léo Delibes: [leo də lib] (Listen here)

There are probably more tricky names I am leaving out, but these are the ones I tend to hear the most. Feel free to send me requests for additions to the list!

Stay tuned for my next post, which will deal with the joys of the French [r] and how to handle it (or not handle it)…

7 thoughts on “How do you pronounce “Messiaen” anyway? A quick guide to French Composers’ names.

  1. Pingback: Character names in French Opera, and how to pronounce them. | dictioncorner

  2. Stephen

    I do wish that the IPA of the names showed up correctly, but perhaps it is my system, not the coding. In any case, very amusing and quite useful to point students who argue for an incorrect pronunciation because “My ___ grade choir teacher told me it was pronounced as ________.” Really? In that case, you should go study with them! (I’ve WANTED to say it on occasion, but never have.)

  3. Mary Dibbern

    What is really alarming is when our advice on pronunciation is refuted and the answer is “because my French diction teacher told me . . . .”


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