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The Octet was substantially revised in Vienna and completed in 1793. The only surviving autograph, on Viennese paper, is a working manuscript with many corrections. It was eventually published by Artaria only in 1830 and thus acquired another misleadingly late opus number. The autograph suggests that Beethoven originally intended the Rondino in E flat major, WoO25, as part of the Octet, since he began to write it on the page following the Menuetto but only got as far as writing the clef signs and the opening theme in the first horn part before abandoning the movement in favour of the Presto finale. The Octet underwent further revision in 1795 and was published as the String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4, the following year. The music itself is light yet subtle, more rough-edged and abrupt in character than Mozart. Despite its title, the Menuetto is one of the earliest examples of Beethoven’s predilection for replacing the minuet with a more untamed and light-hearted scherzo. Like the Rondino, the Octet is notable for its high-flying, virtuoso writing for the horns, an instrument for which he had clearly established an early understanding. Arpeggios were something of a second horn visiting card and feature dramatically towards the end of the opening movement. This kind of writing is typical of the figures illustrated in such tutors of the period as Heinrich Domnich’s Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor of 1808. Composers and arrangers of Harmoniemusik variously allocated the principal voice to oboe or clarinet; in the Octet the oboe takes the lead in the first three movements, partnering the bassoon in an operatic duet in the Andante; the ensemble colour changes abruptly when a virtuoso clarinet is unleashed to lead the Finale.
from notes by Colin Lawson © 2017