Skip to page content

About this Piece

The three-movement Sonatina (1941) represents Conlon Nancarrow’s first fully completed composition in exile. Public performances of it in its original form created harrowing experiences, because one pianist could scarcely master its complexity as written. Nancarrow’s frustration led him to modifying a player piano to realize his music. Eventually, a compositional process of writing pieces specifically to be played back only on his player piano became Nancarrow’s most famous innovation.

Although some ambitious pianists still attempt to perform the Sonatina as a solo work, pianist Yvar Mikhashoff (1941-1993) published a playful transcription of it in the 1980s for two pianists (one piano, four hands). Nancarrow approved of this version, even once expressing that he preferred it to the original.

The opening Presto movement develops numerous fragments of a four-beat motive in C major, which is heard in its pristine form only near the end of the movement — one repeated note followed by going up and down the first five steps of the major scale. These fragments form syncopations and rhythms which methodically transform into autonomous metric and temporal layers.

The inner Moderato movement with its slow ostinato and strident dissonances exaggerates the quirkiness of the third note in the blues scale, outlined within a three-note, downward-moving motive in G. Opening with the character of a fast fugue, the final Allegro molto movement further develops canonically, but introduces elements from piano rags while returning the key area gradually from G to a simple cadence in C.

— From notes by Gregg Wager