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Words and Music: A Harmonious Relationship

Annabelle Johnson is a British expat living in France. Over the years she has met many interesting people with unusual stories and talents.

A True Marriage of Minds

Anne and Colin Cartwright have been happily married for over 40 years. If you were to ask them why their marriage has been so successful, they would probably cite their joint love of music as being the number one reason.

Music has formed the backbone of their existence throughout their personal and professional lives, and it is still the case, although they have both now retired from highly successful musical careers. A more affable, modest couple you couldn't wish to meet, yet their gentle and unassuming manner belies the fact that both have been high achievers throughout their careers.

It is not just music that binds this couple. Both are writers. Anne loves to write stories and poetry and Colin loves to compose music. After busy working lives, they now have time in retirement to devote to this second interest, and Anne's new book, A Handful of Chestnuts, is due out shortly along with other publications to follow soon afterwards.

Life's long journey has taken them from the grey, unrelenting drizzle of the UK to the verdant, much sunnier Limousin in France where they now live. These days, Anne is often found scribbling into a notebook, teaching, or simply enjoying domestic life, while Colin continues to pursue his never-ending love of music, composing new works and directing his choir.

Anne's early life and career

Anne spent her formative years in the north of England until her career and marriage took her south and away from her Lancashire roots.

As a child she could not stop singing. It was, therefore, natural that she would seek a career in music. She obtained a place at one of Britain’s leading music conservatoires, the Royal Northern College of Music, where she studied opera. There she met fellow student and future husband, Colin.

Throughout her career she has been in demand as a soloist performing in the UK and across Europe, working with other eminent musicians, and appearing on British TV and radio.

Early publicity photo above left.  Right, Anne at 16 years of age with her music trophies.

Early publicity photo above left. Right, Anne at 16 years of age with her music trophies.

Anne performed major roles in Puccini's Turandot and Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Anne performed major roles in Puccini's Turandot and Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Some highlights of Anne's career

  • Above left are two rare photographs from a performance when she sang the role of Liu in Puccini's Turandot.
  • She sang Mozart's Laudate Dominum in the vast Ghent Cathedral, Belgium, as part of the National Day celebrations. In addition, she performed solo soprano in Haydn's Little Organ Mass in Notre Dame and La Madeleine Church in Paris and as part of a tour of France and Belgium.
  • She performed Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Ligeti Requiem in York Minster and sang as soprano soloist in Mendelsohn's Elijah and Beethoven's Mass in C in Bonn, Germany.
  • She has performed solo recitals on BBC radio and she sang 'The Queen of the Night' from The Magic Flute at the Dartington Festival. The photo shown above is a rare record of this performance.
  • In the late 1980s she toured the UK in the role of Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen.
  • She has sung in recital with Thomas Trotter and worked as soloist in Rossini's Petite Messe Sollenelle with mezzo soprano Sarah Walker under the direction of the celebrated choral conductor Christopher Robinson, and worked with Elgar Howarth and Harrison Birtwistle of the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank.

Despite this extensive list of achievements, Anne remains down to earth and unpretentious. It is typical of her self-effacing manner and quiet modesty that she has retained few records or mementos of her career.

Another rare photograph of one of Anne's performances is shown below along with a news clipping below right relating to Anne as a young professional. It describes how Anne McGivern (as she then was) performed and broadcast in recitals and oratorios and sang opera in Germany and Italy.


Further highlights in Anne's career

  • After joining the English Music Theatre Company she sang at Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells and worked in the Opera Theatre in Florence in the Maggio Musicale.
  • She also worked with the late Sir Peter Pears at Aldburgh in Britten's Opera Death in Venice, and with John Shirley Quirk and James Bowman at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

Colin's life and achievements

Colin grew up in Port Sunlight, Birkenhead and sang as a boy chorister in the Parish Church of St. Mary.

He won a place at the Royal Manchester College of Music which later became the Royal Northern College of Music where he met Anne, and where he studied piano and singing as a counter-tenor, or male alto.

At this time he played the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream and he also sang in the BBC Northern Singers which is a very prestigeous offshoot of the BBC Singers..

In 1975, following graduation, he was appointed as a member of the choir of the Royal Chapel of St. George. The couple then moved to a house in Britain's great and historic Windsor Castle.

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Young Colin above left, and to the right a maestro in the making.

Young Colin above left, and to the right a maestro in the making.

Some highlights of Colin's career

Colin has made several tours of the USA and sung at a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 in New York.

He sang as a soloist for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's 70th birthday concert, and also at the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. Following this, he received a personal gift of a piece of the royal wedding cake which to this day sits uneaten in its decorative container on his piano.

Colin also received the award of the Golden Spurs for his work with a girls' choir in Belgium. Most notably, in 2006, he was awarded the Royal Victorian Order, an order in the personal gift of Her Majesty the Queen for members of the Royal Household, for services to music.

During his time at Windsor, he recorded an impressive collection of British and European choral works, as well as singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and The Royal Albert Hall, London. In fact, it would be difficult to name a cathedral or major concert hall in which he has not performed.

Colin with his Royal Victorian Order award for services to music.

Colin with his Royal Victorian Order award for services to music.

The three top photos show Colin's uneaten royal wedding cake with accompanying card. The bottom photo is of the certificate awarded to Colin with his Royal Victorian Medal.

The three top photos show Colin's uneaten royal wedding cake with accompanying card. The bottom photo is of the certificate awarded to Colin with his Royal Victorian Medal.

Professional life

While the couple were living at Windsor and Anne was developing her career as a soprano soloist in opera houses throughout Europe, Colin was immersing himself in the great British choral tradition.

Over the next 30 years, not only did he sing the daily offices in the Royal Chapel, where Anne also made occasional guest appearances in concerts, he performed the music for royal and national events. He also extended his musical activities, including conducting an award-winning girls' choir, the Choir of the Brigidine School, Windsor, which performed all over Europe. He also conducted local choral societies and operatic groups.

Time to move on

After three decades of hectic but enjoyable years within the ancient cloisters, the couple decided it was time to move on. They craved a calmer lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of modern life in the UK.

In 2006 they relocated to the Limousin, France, where they purchased a quaint, old, rundown building. From life amongst the British aristocracy and the red plush extravagance of the theatre, they now found themselves living in more modest circumstances alongside French country folk.

The music providing the backdrop to their lives no longer consisted of beautiful musical masterpieces written by eminent composers, but instead became the constant, insistent hum of the cement mixer as they threw themselves wholeheartedly into the extensive renovation project which they had undertaken.

As time went by, they experienced a wealth of quirky, humorous and sometimes bizarre occurrences, all of which Anne recorded over the years, and these 'scribblings' have provided a lucrative and ongoing supply of material for her books. Her next book, A Handful of Chestnuts, is due to be released autumn 2017 in time for Christmas.

A collection of delightful and evocative stories and anecdotes, it would make an ideal gift for those difficult-to-buy-for individuals with an interest in all things Gallic. It's a joy to read, especially for those seeking to follow their dream and settle in the French countryside.

Anne and Colin's life today

The couple have now almost completed their renovation project, although there is still work to be done, and are comfortably settled in their small hamlet in the Haute Vienne. The town of Rochechouart, famous for the beautiful château which overlooks the town, sits close by.

In 2009, Colin and Anne founded an amateur choir, Cantique, which has grown in number from humble beginnings and become very successful. It now boasts a multinational membership of more than forty talented and committed individuals.

Colin has acted as Chef de Chœur since the outset and brought all of his immense flair and wealth of experience to the role. Meanwhile, Anne is the mainstay of the sopranos, often singing solo, leading by example and passing on her operatic expertise and technical knowledge to other chorists.

Colin has been chef of Cantique since it was founded in 2008.

Cantique has performed several times in the great Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Limoges, as well as many other churches and grand venues in the Limousin and environs.

The sound and quality of the music the choir produces continues to go from strength to strength, providing an outlet for Anne and Colin's passion for music, as well as huge enjoyment to numerous audiences.

Anne continues to write and Colin to compose. For this devoted couple, the combination of words and music has turned out to be particularly harmonious. It has been their recipe for success throughout their personal and professional lives.

Now in their early retirement, they can look forward to many happy years ahead continuing to do what they have always done, make music together.

Colin conducting and Anne singing.

Colin conducting and Anne singing.


© 2017 Annabelle Johnson


Fabulous article. on November 29, 2017:

Very inspiring and informative. Thank you.

Nancy Richards on August 18, 2017:

This is SO interesting! As a fellow writer and music lover myself

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

Good luck with 'A handful of chestnuts' when it's published.

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