B i o g r a p h y
Canadian-American composer and lyricist Barbara York was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on February 23, 1949 and passed away on November 6, 2020 at her home, in Pittsburg, KS. She was born to Howard and Edith (Pitblado) Spence along with two older siblings, sisters Eleanor and Judith.
Barbara’s music career began at age 4 ½ when her mother noticed her curiosity with piano and she began taking 10-minute lessons with her siblings teacher, Mr. Lewis. Barbara played the cello from 6th grade through high school and began composing at age 7 to perform in her school’s hobby shows. Barbara attended McGill University starting at age 16 and graduated at 20 with a Bachelor’s Degree in School Music.
Upon completing school, Barbara briefly taught at the Manitoba Theater School before moving to Toronto. While there, she began a decade-long career working theatre jobs ranging from music direction, composing, and arranging while working with thespians such as John Candy, Marty Short, and Andrea Martin. Barbara left theater to focus on family and subsequently wrote Colette with her writing partner, Christopher Covert. Colette would go on to win the Dora Mavor Moore award in 1981 for score and lyrics.
Soon after leaving the theater, Barbara’s career switched focus to collaborative piano and she moved to Kansas City in the summer of 1993. Aside from collaborative piano, she worked church jobs, taught elementary music, and began accompanying school choirs. As a result, she was asked to accompany a tuba player doing a recital at Pittsburg State University (KS) named Michael Fischer. She was enamored with solo tuba and Fischer’s playing and asked if she could write something for him. He agreed and “Sea Dreams” was written. Fischer went on to commission three more works from York: “Arioso Gloria”, “Directions”, and the “Concerto for Tuba.” This launched her career as a composer for tuba and euphonium.
“Sea Dreams” went on to be one of the required pieces for the ITEA Young Artists competition list in 2004. Her piece “Conversations”, for alto saxophone, euphonium, and piano won the Harvey Phillips Award for Euphonium in Chamber Music in 2006. The same year, her 50-minute scripted children’s piece A Butterfly in Time was nominated for a Canadian Juno Award.
Over the next 15 years, Barbara contributed over 40 works involving tuba/euphonium ranging from concerti, sonatas, solos, duets, and chamber works. Many of these works were commissions from individuals at their request, and many of those were reflective of deaths, celebrations, or memorialization of moments, routines, and even American art. Top artists such as Tim Buzbee, Matthew Brown, John Manning, and Stephanie Frye-Clark have recorded her works.
Aside from tuba/euphonium, York received commissions from the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra and the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, as well as premiering works at the World Saxophone Congress, the International Double Reed Symposium, the International Women’s Brass Conference, the United States Army Band Tuba and Euphonium Workshop, the International Horn Symposium, and the International Trombone Festival.
Upon retirement, Barbara spent the last decade of her life in Pittsburg, KS working as a staff accompanist for Pittsburg State University, playing for ITEC’s and Regional Conferences, composing, and enjoying life with her husband, Joe, her children, and her grandchildren. Barbara officially became a citizen of the United States in 2017.
Barbara was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Tuba Euphonium Association in May of 2021 at the Virtual Tuba Euphonium Conference (VTEC).
-Dr. AJ Beu
L-R: Barbara York, Ellie (middle sister), Edith (mother), Judy (oldest sister).
Barbara in the late 1980s.
Barbara and her husband, Joe York (2019).