Beethoven wrote the Sonata for Horn and Piano in 1800, eight years into his Viennese career, on the tail end of his exuberant youth. His hearing had declined, but he was still performing as a pianist, and the piece sprung from a collaboration with Johann Wenzel Stitch, a virtuoso horn player he admired.
Stitch, who preferred to be called Signor Punto, had perfected the technique of hand-stopping, which allowed him to play more notes on the horn than could normally be produced before the invention of valves around 1814. Without valves, the natural horn is acoustically limited to the notes in the overtone series, which gives hunting horn calls their distinctive character. But some players found they could fill out the notes in-between by manipulating their hand in the bell, making the horn a truly melodic instrument. Punto was a pioneer of this art.
Beethoven and Punto premiered the Sonata on April 18, 1800 during a recital at Vienna’s Burgtheater. Beethoven claimed to have written the horn part only the night before and to have improvised the piano accompaniment live at the concert. The audience demanded to hear it a second time, and so they repeated it with Beethoven improvising again. He may have exaggerated the story, but it points to the spontaneity and musical daring of the time. (Performers today would call this being unprepared, nothing to brag about.)
The duo took the Sonata to Budapest the following month but had a falling out and called off the rest of their tour. In March 1801, Beethoven released the Sonata as his Op. 17 with the publisher Tranquillo Mollo. Because the piece was written with Punto’s exceptional ability in mind and faced a small market of equally proficient horn players, Beethoven included an alternate cello part to improve its commercial prospects. As a horn piece, it is the only sonata for a wind or brass instrument Beethoven ever wrote.
All three movements include prominent parts for both horn and piano—Beethoven was clearly showing off his piano playing, too. The first movement, Allegro moderato, is built around simple horn calls, but elaborates with the chromatics Punto specialized in. The Poco Adagio lies lyrically in F minor, a key which has a particularly veiled color on the natural horn. The slow movement’s brevity is a bit suspicious—perhaps the result of Beethoven’s rush to finish the piece—but he disguises its abrupt ending with a blink-and-you-miss-it transition to the Rondo finale.