The work has been characterised as "difficult", and is regarded by some as Bruckner's artistic breakthrough. According to Rudolf Kloiber, the third symphony "opens the sequence of Bruckner's masterpieces, in which his creativity meets monumental ability of symphonic construction." The work is notorious as the most-revised of Bruckner's symphonies, and there exist no fewer than six versions, with two of them, the 1873 original and the composer's last thoughts of 1889, being widely performed today.
Bruckner wrote the first version of the symphony in 1873. In September 1873, before the work was finished, Bruckner visited Richard Wagner, whom he had first met in 1865 at the premiere of Tristan and Isolde in Munich. Bruckner showed both his Second and Third symphonies to Wagner, asking him to pick one he preferred. To Bruckner's delight, Wagner chose the Third, and Bruckner dedicated the symphony to the master he highly respected. After getting home, Bruckner continued to work on the symphony, finishing the finale on 31 December 1873.
According to an anecdote, Bruckner and Wagner drank so much beer together that upon arriving home Bruckner realized that he had forgotten which symphony Wagner had chosen. He wrote a letter back to Wagner saying "Symphony in D minor, where the trumpet begins the theme?". Wagner scribbled back "Yes! Best wishes! Richard Wagner." Ever since then, Wagner referred to Bruckner as "Bruckner the trumpet" and the two became firm friends. In the dedication, Bruckner referred to Wagner as "the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music".
The premiere of this Symphony was given in Vienna in 1877. The conductor was to be Johann von Herbeck, but he died a month beforehand so Bruckner himself had to step in and conduct. The concert was a complete disaster: although a decent choral conductor, Bruckner was a barely competent orchestral director: the Viennese audience, which was not sympathetic to his work to begin with, gradually left the hall as the music played. Even the orchestra fled at the end, leaving Bruckner alone with a few supporters, including Gustav Mahler, who with Rudolf Krzyzanowski prepared a piano duet version of the work.
Stunned by this debacle, Bruckner made several revisions of his work, leaving out significant amounts of music. The original 1873 score was not published until 1977.