Beethoven wrote this work in 1796, yet waited almost ten years before offering it up for performance.
Following the premier, one critic described the sextet as “a composition which shines resplendent by reason of its lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new and surprising ideas”. Yet this was not enough to convince the composer of the piece’s worth, and four more years passed before he submitted the work for publication, together with the following note:
The sextet is one of my earlier things and, moreover, was written in a single night – nothing can really be said of it beyond that it was written by an author who at least has produced a few better works; yet for many people such works are the best.
While Beethoven hints that the speed of the work’s creation might excuse any compositional shortfalls, his claim is not entirely accurate: sketches of the third and fourth movements have since been discovered in the composer’s notebooks.
If Beethoven did not have full confidence in the work’s merit, it is perhaps because it was written before the composer had fully developed the musical assurance that characterises most of his output.
In his choice of instrumentation, the composer has an eye on commercial possibilities – wind ensembles being a popular feature of Viennese music of the day – but he is not content to conform to established conventions. The work’s classic four-movement format was at the time usually reserved for more serious, larger-scale endeavours, and the third movement, while labeled as a minuet, is set at a tempo that augurs Beethoven’s later preference for the livelier Scherzo.