Sextet in E-flat, Op. 81b
Ludwig van Beethoven
Like most of Beethoven’s chamber music with winds, this E-flat sextet for horn duo and string quartet is an early work, probably composed about 1795. Nothing is known about the occasion for its composition or first performance, which is a little puzzling simply because the virtuosity of the horn parts suggests that Beethoven had specific players in mind, performers of rare skill on the natural horns (without valves) of the day. (It was not published until 1810, hence its relatively high opus number. That Beethoven gave it to Simrock’s company in Bonn may suggest that its inspiration came from players in his home town.)
That first published edition indicated that parts of the cello line should be doubled by string bass, making the essential character of the piece even clearer: a mini concerto for two horns and strings. The opening movement is a bright and brilliant Allegro con brio in a forthright and compact sonata form, but with already distinctively Beethovenian touches, like launching the development section in G-flat and a coda that is both sly and emphatic. The horn parts fly high and fast, with the emphasis on energy and ebullience, though they also take the lead on the lyrical side as well.
That lyrical, almost vocal, side is fully exploited in the Adagio. Its character is that of an operatic love duet, with a dramatic – and structurally important – central interruption for the strings.
The horn calls at the beginning of the jaunty 6/8 Rondo finale inevitably suggest the “hunting” clichés so beloved of the period, but Beethoven expands the instrumental horizon by bringing the strings into the foreground more, although they also repeat the main hunting call theme. Midway through there is one of those great surprises so characteristic of Beethoven, the utterly unexpected insertion of a few bars of hushed oscillation in D-flat into the prevailing E-flat jollity.
— John Henken