Beethoven wrote a good deal for wind instruments in his youth. Examples are an early trio for flute, bassoon and piano, a trio for clarinet, cello and piano, a sonata for horn and piano, a quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon (modelled on Mozart’s quintet for the same instruments, K452), and a number of pieces of Harmoniemusik
. Beethoven’s sole essay in the serenade/divertimento idiom is his early Sextet in E flat major, Op 81b. The work has a deceptively late opus number because it was not published until 1810, but it seems to have been written around 1795, in the period when Beethoven was beginning to make his way in Viennese society as a composer and keyboard virtuoso after a period of study with Haydn – who left for his second trip to England in January 1794. It is not known whether the work was written for a particular occasion, but it was issued by the Bonn publisher Nicolaus Simrock, who played second horn in the electoral orchestra at Bonn, and had been a friend of Beethoven’s since 1789 when the composer joined the orchestra as a viola player. Simrock published a number of Beethoven’s works, including the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata, Op 47, and the variations for flute and piano, Op 107, and it may be that the sextet was written for performance by the Bonn horn player and some of his colleagues. The work has the light-hearted, easy-going tone of the serenade/divertimento tradition, though it is in only three movements – most serenades have at least five – and the horn parts occasionally have the sort of brilliant passage-work we associate with horn concertos or soloistic chamber pieces with horn, such as Haydn’s divertimento in E flat for horn, violin and cello, or Mozart’s quintet in E flat, K407, for horn, violin, two violas and cello. Indeed, K407 is particularly close in style and mood to Op 81b, and was probably the main model.
from notes by Peter Holman © 1992