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Beethoven started composing music for winds in the early 1790s, while he still worked for Maximilian Franz, the Archbishop and Elector of Cologne, who had his capital in Bonn. The Elector (so called because he was one of the German rulers who cast a vote for the Holy Roman Emperor when the previous one died) thought that wind music helped his digestion and had an ensemble consisting of pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons to accompany his meals.
Beethoven also knew Mozart’s music for wind ensemble, especially his serenades. Thus the younger composer was well-versed in the possibilities of various combinations of wind instruments when he settled for good in Vienna in November 1792.
The Sextet was, according to Beethoven’s biographer Alexander Thayer, composed in 1796. It waited for its first performance for nearly a decade, when Beethoven offered it up at a benefit concert for his violinist friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh in April 1805. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the music journal of record for German-speaking Europe during Beethoven’s lifetime, described the Sextet in a review of the benefit as “a composition which shines resplendent by reason of its lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new and surprising ideas,” praise tinged with irony for a nine-year-old work.
The Sextet then lay dormant for five more years before Breitkopf & Härtel, Beethoven’s Leipzig publishers, printed it. This explains why this charming, 20-minute early work has an opus number in the neighborhood of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the “Emperor” Concerto, works with which it has very little in common.
The Sextet’s layout reflects the typical classical pattern of four movements, including a minuet, which Beethoven would forego in later works in favor of the more explosive scherzo. The clarinet and the bassoon get most of the “lively melodies” in the Sextet’s opening and closing movements (although the horn has an especially rousing outburst at the end of the first allegro).
Beethoven also takes advantage of the different characteristics of the instruments to great effect. Witness, for example, the simplicity of the theme played by the bassoon at the outset of the adagio, and how Beethoven recasts it for clarinet and bassoon in dialogue over a gently rocking accompaniment, as a single theme becomes a conversation between two players.
John Henken is Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.