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< Beaux Arts Trio farewell, part 1 | Main | Fred Plotkin at Pavarotti's Tomb >

You say, I say...

Posted at 5:13 PM on September 3, 2008 by Fred Child

Last week, I played a concert excerpt from the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, their arrangement of the "Fantasia Upon One Note" by English composer Henry Purcell.


The same day, I received an email from a listener in New York, Philip Winters. Mr. Winters chided me for my pronunciation of the word "fantasia." I said it as an English word, in three syllables, like the title of the Disney movie. Mr. Winters asked if I would please stick to the Italian pronunciation of the word -- four syllables, emphasis on the third.


This raises an eternal conundrum for classical music hosts: should we use the composer's original pronunciation (in whatever language), or English versions that our audience is more likely to understand? I had a cordial email exchange with Winters (unlike the exchanges I've had with some listeners who offer "corrections," correct or otherwise), and asked if I might post our emails on my blog. Mr. Winters graciously agreed...and here you have it.
Dear Fred,

You are mispronouncing the word "fantasia." You are pronouncing this word in the way that Disney executives wished the public to say it in that way when they released their film of the same name, Fantasia, in 1941. The public caught on, and to this day hosts and announcers, such as yourself, say fan-TAY-zha, when referring to works of music.

But the word is Italian, and its pronunciation should be rigorously observed. It is fan-ta-ZIA. To persons such as myself, who have been to Italy, and who immerse themselves in Italian music (not to speak of the music of Bach and others), your pronunciation sounds comical. Can I urge you to say fan-ta-ZIA?

Philip Winters
Hi Philip,

Thanks for your emails about the pronunciation of the word "fantasia." When you say the "correct pronunciation," I take it you're referring to the Italian pronunciation. Yes, in Milan or Florence or Rome, you'd hear the four-syllable version, with the emphasis on the third syllable.

But like so many words, "fantasia" has evolved from use in one language into use in many languages, and pronunciations sometimes change. (Or...are corrupted! Depending on your point of view.) In English dictionaries, the preferred pronunciation is three syllables, with the emphasis on the second. (See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fantasia)

If the fantasia in question is by an Italian composer, you could make the argument that the Italian pronunciation should be used. But even then, there are other considerations. On Performance Today, I'm speaking to an English-speaking American audience, and among my primary concerns is that I actually communicate with them. So when we play something from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, I say "Marriage of Figaro." With Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, I don't attempt "Z mého života," I say "From My Life." And let's not even get into the original Chinese title of the "Butterfly Lovers Concerto"!

At the same time, there has to be some balance. It would sound silly to say the English version of "Richard Wagner." Debussy's "La Mer," I still call "La Mer."

I'm always trying to strike this balance between "correct pronunciation" (pronunciation from the original language) and what the majority of my audience is likely to understand. Given that I'm always striking a balance, I often reconsider my (admittedly subjective) judgments. I used to say the first syllable of Antonin Dvorak's first name as if it rhymed with the English word "ant." But some listeners wrote to say I was over-anglicizing -- and on reflection, I thought they were right, I changed. On the other hand, I've also been asked to say the "a" consistently throughout all three names in "Johann Sebastian Bach." I'm afraid I still anglicize the "a" in the middle name somewhat. To flatten it out may be correct, but sounds affected to my American ear.

But in this case, and in particular when we're talking about a piece by an English speaking composer...I think I'm going to stick with the three-syllable fantasia.

Thanks for your notes, I'm always glad to hear your thoughts.
All the best,

Fred Child
Host of Performance Today

Dear Fred,

Thank you for your very thoughtful e-mail with regard to my comment seeking a "correct" pronunciation of this word, "fantasia." Your position is well taken. But I hope you will allow me to persist.

Today, August 26, 2008, is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is altogether likely that radio stations across the US and Canada will play his "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis." And it is further likely that hosts, such as yourself, will pronounce that initial word "fan-TAYZH-a," pronunciation unknown to the composer when he wrote the piece in 1910 (revised in 1913 and 1919). That pronunciation did not come into existence until 1941, when the Walt Disney Company released its path-breaking animated feature film FANTASIA. Even Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the music on the film, protested against the "version" of the word promulgated by Disney. "But it is 'fan-ta-ZEE-a." Yet, sixty-plus years later, it is "fan-TAYZH-a" that emerges from our radios, as witness your preferred pronunciation on PERFORMANCE TODAY.

You note that the Disney pronunciation is vouched for by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. But dictionaries are no help in this matter, as they now record how persons speak the language. They are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. And there is now no question that a majority of the population say "fan-TAYZH-a."

There are several reasons for this decades-long development. One is the immense popularity of the Disney film, not only in its first run, but then in re-release, and now in home-playable formats, such as DVDs. This has meant a leap forward in the popularity of the music on the film (such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring), but, regrettably, in my view, a geometric increase in the Disney-preferred voicing of the title, "fan-TAYZH-a."

A second reason is the general decline in the knowledge among the general public of foreign languages and, in this case, Italian. It is a sad circumstance that many persons of second- and third-generation Italian lineage do not even know how to pronounce their own names! They have special trouble with the "gl" and "gn" combinations. Take one example: the Commissioner of the National Football League was until recently a fellow named Paul Tagliabue. He pronounced it "TAGG-lia-boo." I sent him a short note, which, in substance, went like this: "Your name should be pronounced 'Talia-bu-ay.' The 'G' is not spoken. When you go to an Italian restaurant, do you order 'La-SAGG-na'? I rest my case." (Mr. Tagliabue was a lawyer.) The NFL Commissioner did not reply.

This fusion of Disney-pervasiveness and poor Italian has led us to a wide acceptance of "fan-TAYZH-a," as witness dictionary entries. Despite this lamentable situation, standards, I would insist, must be upheld, especially in media reaching vast masses. Among your listeners are those who are in, or are about to enter, high school and college. There must be quite a few are headed for music conservatories. It is not unreasonable to hope that these young persons should hear and then carry with them the names of works of music in their "authentic" pronunciations, at least in pronunciations the composers themselves would have recognized.

Thus, today, I would expect to hear Vaughan Williams's "Fan-ta-ZEE-a on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. To foist the Disney "version" of that word on this work would be an affront to the composer and a disservice to listeners, especially those in their youth. I trust you will think about them when you are presented again with this troublesome word.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to present your views.


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