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Remembering Barbara Whittingham (03.05.1953-23.05.2020)

We are heartbroken to announce the death of one of our dearly-loved members, Barbara Whittingham, who passed away on 23rd May 2020 following a battle with cancer.

Barbara (r) with other Cantemus founder members, Mary Williams and Hugh Edwards

It is very hard to imagine Cantemus without Barbara. As one of its founder members, she had sung with the choir since its very first performance in 1992. Her pure, clear voice was a huge asset to the first soprano section, and her intonation, blend and musicianship were impeccable. She was very committed, rarely missing a rehearsal or a concert, and her musical standards were very high; praise from Barbara was always worth having, because it meant something. A music teacher by training who had taught in schools in Bristol, Chepstow and Cardiff, she also taught piano and singing – although, multi-talented as she was, she could play the double bass as well. She was an alumna of Aberystwyth University’s well-regarded Elizabethan Madrigals Society (‘Mads’ for short), and her love of Renaissance polyphony remained with her all her life, although her musical tastes were wide-ranging and embraced musical theatre as well as classical music. Indeed, she made a memorable Eliza Doolittle in one production.

A young Barbara (r) on choir tour with alto Jacki Belcher

At Buckingham Palace shortly before our performance of Handel’s Messiah

But Barbara’s contribution to Cantemus went far beyond singing. In many ways, she was the essence of the choir; the social glue that kept it together. She was a kind, loyal and thoughtful friend – a true ‘people person’. She would go out of her way to make new members, young and old, feel at home. She could always be counted on to help organise social events. She remembered people’s birthdays. She was a consummate listener; any problem or secret entrusted to Barbara would go no further. Her keen intelligence and ready wit were always much in evidence in rehearsals, particularly during her years as choir librarian. Her good-humoured email demands for music return, always signed off “B.Lib”, will be treasured by all of us.

Barbara (front row, second from left) coloured her hair pink despite her cancer treatment

Barbara had great style. Never knowingly on time for choir practice, she would sweep into rehearsals sporting her familiar oversized shades and a brightly coloured outfit, all put together with her enviable theatrical flair. On one particularly late entrance, the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” was played in her honour. Undaunted by chemotherapy and strictures from doctors to stop dyeing her hair, she promptly coloured it pink instead. She adored fashion, and could always be counted on to source an elegant find or two when on tour; a canary yellow leather handbag in Orvieto being a particularly memorable example. As a charity volunteer in her local Oxfam shop, her expert eye was greatly valued in sorting through the bags of unwanted accoutrements brought in by well-meaning members of the public. Equally talented with interior design, she enjoyed ‘upcycling’ furniture items at her cosy Penarth home, and would joke that her front door was painted in Farrow and Ball’s exclusive – and reassuringly expensive – ‘Churlish Green’.

Barbara loved bright colours – and plenty of sunshine

Barbara was an avowed cat-lover, regularly swapping anecdotes about her much-loved pets, Nutmeg and Clove (and their capricious predecessor, Marmite), with other cat owners in Cantemus. But her affections were chiefly reserved for her two lovely children, Hannah and Lewis, of whom she regularly spoke with great pride. She often would text them – surreptitiously of course – during church services so she could keep her friends updated on their activities and achievements, of which there were many. She was thrilled when Lewis recently became engaged to his partner, Caroline, and had been excitedly anticipating their wedding when coronavirus and lockdown sadly forced a change of plan. She was a devoted and selfless carer to her late mother and father, Beryl and Eric; even when her own health was declining, she would continue regularly popping over to their home in Whitchurch to rustle up meals, run errands and ensure they were properly cared for.

With her children, Hannah and Lewis

Barbara (c) as a young lady with her mother Beryl (r) and her aunt Marion (l)

Travel was another of Barbara’s passions. During her time in Mads she went on tours to Brittany, Germany and Scotland – events which she recounted amusingly and vividly in later years. She unfailingly took part in Cantemus tours, travelling to Norway, Spain, Paris, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and as far north as the Arctic Circle. In her later years, she began travelling more, going as far afield as India and New Zealand; often in the company of her close circle of friends who were affectionately nicknamed ‘The Coven’. She had a soft spot for all things Italian, taking Ianguage lessons, attending specialist cookery courses in the country, and recreating authentic Italian dishes at the dinner parties she gave for friends – accompanied, of course, by plenty of fine wine.

Barbara enjoyed the outdoors – and knew how to dress for it

On holiday in India with friends

Barbara loved literature, film and the theatre, and was a regular visitor to the Hay Festival. She was a rugby fan and followed the ups and downs of the Welsh team avidly, always wearing her red rugby shirt to rehearsals on match days. Even the tribulations of her cancer battle failed to prevent her from participating in as many social activities as she could; whether a choir curry, Welsh lessons, a dinner party, or a coffee with close friends. At all these events, her excellent impersonation of Gavin and Stacey’s Nessa was often in evidence. In short, Barbara loved life, and she lived it to its fullest.

Barbara was a rugby fan

Relaxing on tour in Leiden, Holland

Yet for all her irreverent humour and zest for living in the present, Barbara was a quietly devout Christian. Under the baton of Cantemus’ former Music Director, Robert Court, she sang with the choir of St Augustine’s Church Choir, in Penarth, for some three decades. As in all her choral endeavours, Barbara’s superb musicianship and steadfast loyalty were the mainstay of that close-knit group. An accomplished soloist as well as a fine choral singer, she would regularly perform solo items at weddings and other events. Even in her last few weeks, when the choir was prevented from meeting in person due to coronavirus lockdown rules, she was keen to participate in their regular Zoom chats and quizzes.

She left us on a breezy, crisp, sunny May day; the whimsical weather much like Barbara herself. Although we grieve at the prospect of a world without her in it, we take some comfort in the fact that her passing was peaceful and comfortable, and that Lewis could be with her. She is now free from the cruel disease that kept her isolated for her last few months, with its gruelling treatment regime that even prevented her enjoying the sunshine she loved so much. She had borne her illness with stoicism, grace, and dignity, and her dry sense of humour remained intact until the very end.

Before one of her last concerts

The day before she passed away, having been told she had little time left, Barbara sent a final email to her chorister friends. “Singing has been my life,” she wrote, “along with the people who sing with me.” It is equally hard for us to imagine singing without Barbara, so tightly is she woven into the fabric of our musical lives.

Our deepest sympathy and thoughts are with Hannah and Lewis, and all her wider family and friends. Hers was a unique personality, and the passing of our dear friend leaves a vast gap in all our lives. She was and is, quite simply, irreplaceable.

Thank you, Barbara, for everything. We’ll miss you more than you could ever imagine. And whenever we sing, you’ll always be with us.

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