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That’s What She Said – Postcards from Erica December 2020

Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by women composers? Look no further.
Each month cellist and women’s music specialist, Erica Lessie, sends us three short “postcards” about pieces of three different levels: novice, intermediate student, and seasoned player.

Welcome to the last installment for 2020 of “That’s What She Said . . . Unaccompanied Cello Works by Women Composers.” 

I hope you enjoy exploring this month’s pieces as much as I did in selecting them. Want to know more about my digital postcards? See my first installment for more information.

Black Letter Box with a postman riding a horse and playing a post horn

Photo by Kirsty TG on Unsplash

December Postcard #1: Novice Level

Looking for a beginner’s level solo piece in a modern style? Check out Wilma Pistorius’s “Looking for the Possible Embrace.”

    • Title: Looking for the Possible Embrace
    • Composer: Wilma Pistorius
    • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
    • Year Composed: 2020
    • Movements: 1
    • Duration of Work: 2:48
    • Number of Measures: 57
    • Number of Pages: 2
    • Tempo: quarter note = 72
    • Difficulty Level: high beginner, comparable to late Suzuki Book 3
    • Highest Position Reached: 5th
    • Technique Employed: bass clef; left-hand pizzicato; double stops with an open string; harmonics; glissando; grace notes; 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 time signatures
    • Publisher: Wilma Pistorius
    • Where to Purchase: Contact the composer at pistoriusw(at)
    • Cost of Sheet Music*:$12.50
    • Recording, by cellist Ragnhild E. Wesenberg:

Cellist’s Guide

In “Looking for the Possible Embrace,” Pistorius manages to create a varied tonal palette using a limited number of pitches and note values.

The A pitch is the focal point of the piece, appearing as the tuning harmonic, the open string (both arco and plucked), in 4th position on the D string,1st position on the G string, and as an open string in various double stops.

Cellists will delight in the well-considered placement of notes; physically, this is a fun piece to play.

As a teacher, I can see the value of using this piece to introduce the A string tuning harmonic, the 4th position A on the D string, and double stops with one open, and one fingered note, as well as left-hand pizzicato.

Additionally, this is an excellent vehicle for focusing on note duration. Though simple, the rhythm shifts from bar to bar, introducing eighth note, quarter, dotted quarter, half, and dotted half note values.

It should also be noted that this is one of the few solo cello pieces available to beginning cellists that is written in a modern style. I hope that more contemporary composers will follow Pistorius’ lead by composing works for novice players.

December Postcard #2: Intermediate Level

Inspired by hearing the news of Malala Yousafzai being shot by the Taliban, Elena Ruehr wrote “Lift” – a welcome addition to the solo cello repertoire that cellists will find both musically and technically rewarding.

    • Title: Lift
    • Composer: Elena Ruehr
    • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
    • Year Composed: 2013
    • Movements: 1
    • Duration of Work: 10′
    • Number of Measures: 179
    • Number of Pages: 6
    • Tempo: quarter note = 104
    • Difficulty Level: hard to compare to a Suzuki book level, but roughly Book 8, high intermediate/low advanced. See Cellist’s Guide below for more detail.
    • Highest Position Reached: thumb position
    • Technique Employed: bass, tenor, and treble clefs; 6/8, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures; double and triple stops; harmonics; 1 octave; many accidentals
    • Publisher: Elena Ruehr
    • Where to Purchase: contact composer at ruehr(at)
    • Cost of Sheet Music*: $10 pdf
    • Recording:

Performance Notes: 

“I was in the kitchen, cooking, and was listening to NPR, and heard the story about Malala Yousafzai being shot by the Taliban. I had not heard of her before that day.

I was so struck by her story that I sat down and started writing a piece, which turned into Lift. I wrote the whole piece in one night, and then spent a couple of weeks tweaking it and working it out.

There are three versions. The first version I wrote for a two-voice girl’s choir. Then I tweaked it again and turned it into a piece for two violins, because I couldn’t get the right text for the girl’s choir.

And I looked at it again and said “this is a piece for solo cello”, because I can turn the two voices into two contrapuntal lines for the cello. When I had that idea I realized that this was the way it should be, so I wrote it out.

I sent to my friend Jennifer Kloetzel, who read it and was very happy and decided to do it.” – from a conversation between Elena Ruehr and Prof. Dr. Tom Moore

Cellist’s Guide

“Lift” uses several contrasting compositional techniques to great effect. In a nod to Yousafzi’s Pakistani roots, Ruehr introduces an ornamented melody, which is then played over a drone, in this case, an open string. This melody and drone appear three times, first over the C string, then the G string, and finally the D string.

These passages are played in neck and low thumb position on the A-G strings, so this is a chance to gain familiarity with an area of the cello that is infrequently utilized.

Interspersed with the melody and drone sections are large swaths of chords. Most of these chords appear in the form of rocking 16th notes, familiar to us from their use in 1st movements of the Sammartini G major and Beethoven A major sonatas.

Rolled triple stops, such as those frequently present in the Bach Suite Sarabandes, are introduced in the middle of the piece. Technically, these chordal sections are an excellent workout for both hands.

Although the vast majority of this work can be played in 1st-7th positions, several measures are written in high treble clef. This should not deter a high intermediate/low advanced player from taking on this piece.

“Lift” is a welcome addition to the solo cello repertoire. Cellists from late intermediate through a professional level will find this piece both musically and technically rewarding.

December Postcard #3: Professional Level

Inspired by a poem by John Ashbery, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “The Reserved, the Reticent,” is a marvelously written work.

    • Title: The Reserved, the Reticent
    • Composer: Sarah Kirkland Snider
    • Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
    • Year Composed: 2004
    • Movements: 1
    • Duration of Work: 10′
    • Number of Measures:198
    • Number of Pages: 11
    • Tempo: varied and frequent tempo changes
    • Difficulty Level: professional
    • Highest Position Reached: thumb position
    • Technique Employed: bass, tenor, and treble clefs; 5/16, 7/16, 9/16, 11/16, 5/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 time signatures; double and quadruple stops; left-hand pizzicato; pizzicato; false harmonics; trills; glissandos
    • Publisher: Schirmer
    • Where to Purchase:
    • Cost of Sheet Music*: $17
    • Recording:

Program Notes:

“I wrote this piece in my first year of graduate study at Yale. I wanted to create a lyrical, ruminative, single-movement narrative for solo cello, an instrument I had studied as a child and often longed to play.

The music was inspired by this passage from ‘As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat,’ a poem by John Ashbery.” – from the composer’s website

“…The night sheen takes over. A moon of Cistercian pallor

Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed.

Finally involved with the business of darkness.

And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,

The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons

Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower

Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.

The summer demands and takes away too much,

But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”

Cellist’s Guide

This single-movement work holds the listener’s attention throughout, changing mood, and tempo frequently.

Though much of the piece is technically quite manageable, there are pockets of thumb position double stops and frequent use of complex rhythms, which is why I have rated this as a professional level piece.

At first glance, parts of the score seem daunting – this is not a piece that you sightread.

I found listening to the recording while looking at the score quite helpful in getting an overall sense of the work.

This is definitely a case where the metronome is your friend, as there are frequent tempo changes.

Sections need to be “digested” and linked together, so this is not a piece to learn in a short amount of time. That being said, “The Reserved, the Reticent” is well worth the effort.

This is a marvelously written work that, in time, may become one of the staples of our repertoire.

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