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Sandy Burnett is a Man of Music, especially amphibious in classical waters and jazz streams of consciousness. He is one of the most authoritative classical music broadcasters in the UK, with a huge and impressive CV, which he wears lightly. How does a swimmer-person like me get to meet such an erudite person? Why, in Hyde Park of course, at the Serpentine Swimming Club, where the bond is water, and swimming. I recall my first conversation with him, in the changing room, while getting dressed. It moved around Bach, Leipzig and Bach, swimming in Leipzig and Dresden, Dresden and Wagner, Wagner’s opera Tannhauser and the morals of the 19th century. “One casual bonk in Venusburg and you were set for hell” was his very memorable summation of Tannhauser that cold autumnal morning. I knew from that moment we would get on. But I didn’t appreciate, and should have, after our word-association travel across place, music and swimming, was his sheer ability to improvise. It wasn’t so much conversation, it was more like jazz.

He has been presenter with BBC Radio 3 from well over a decade and has a close relationship with the Academy of Ancient Music, having been the Orchestra’s Hogwood Fellow for the 2018-19 season. He is the author of the Idler Guide to Classical Music and the Idler Guide to Jazz. His online music programme, Listening Club, explains the classics to all everyday people who have an open ear and an interest to know more. Do take a listen - it, and he, are both very listenable and he has much knowledge to impart in an easy way.

He swims for mental release from his everyday passion and profession, which is classical music. What I didn’t realise when I met him first was that a conversation can quickly turn to Bach, his main man composer. Leipzig is Bach’s city and Sandy knows Leipzig through Bach but also through Wagner – Sandy lectured here during a previous round of the Ring Cycle, at the great Opera House here. Now in 2021, the planned Leipzig Ring Cycle is ‘closed until further notice’ – but we can be hopeful for the future.

His jazz passion takes him to many places –he plays at the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scotts as well as across London, including at the Dalston Jazz Bar, where in pre-Covid-19 days he might have been found behind the front man (or woman) pulling sultry and moody notes on the double bass. In this podcast, Sandy improvised briefly on his double bass and showed how easily he can take the opening note of Das Rheingold (the opener of the Ring Cycle, a three part (plus prelude) opera about power, greed, questioning the natural order, and ultimately the River Rhine) and make it jazz. Music flows through him like water, and the conversation moves easily between both.

We discuss Wagner and the River Rhine, and the whirlpools and the powerful pull of this great river as it flows through Bonn. It also brings to mind Gabriella Wagner, a rhine maiden descendent-of Richard, whom I met at a European Research Council meeting on an island in a Bavarian lake - Chiemsee. Did she swim? Of course she did, and of course we did, swim together. From the power and risk of this great river, we get onto talking about music and drowning – Robert Schumann tried to kill himself by drowning, and Benjamin Britten’s opera tragedy Peter Grimes involves a drowning. Aldeburgh, where Britten lived and worked, has a very strong current I know, and at the right time of day, when the high tide is turning, the shingle sings. Did Wagner swim in the Rhine? He must have done, if only once, to turn the swirls and whirlpools into music in his evocations of this great river in the Ring Cycle.

For this podcast, I have many questions about music and water. Some of them inevitably do not surface. A question I didn’t ask was about why, or how, Abba bubbles up as my mental happy music, especially when swimming. To me this is strange because I have never professed to like Abba, but Abba seems to like me. So they are on my music play-list that emerged with my 65 swims at the age of 65 years. Music affects my mind and body in a very physical way, and water does too – of course, both involve waves, and waves are very physical things. Music and water then - there are Grace Williams’ Sea Sketches and Debussy’s La Mer (written in Eastbourne, Sandy tells me). Handel’s Water Music (written to be performed on a barge on the River Thames in 1717 for the amusement of King George I) doesn’t turn up, but the Thames at Hammersmith does – Sandy lives close by, but doesn’t dare swim there. Importantly, he knows his boundaries when it is important to know them – no improvisation in the River Thames at Hammersmith, a location of much outdoor swimming activity in Summer (under regulated circumstances). Leipzig has both Bach and water in buckets-full. There is the very swimmable River Elster, and the lido, Schreberbad, opened in 1866 the forefront of swimming culture then. The solo changing rooms by the river in Leipzig and the sign at Schreberbad – “here swimming is fun!” are persuasive. This podcast is equally persuasive - “here talking with Sandy is fun!” too.

Hear Sandy in conversation with Stanley here -

Catch Sandy at

Wagner – Das Rheingold Prelude

Grace Williams – Sea Sketches

Wagner – Das Rheingold Prelude

Grace Williams – Sea Sketches

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