Bruckner began composing the Sixth on September 24, 1879, after first thoroughly revising the Third and Fourth symphonies, making a number of changes in the Fifth and completing in the summer the String Quintet that Joseph Hellmesberger had requested (Hellmesberger had actually asked for a string quartet, but Bruckner took the freedom of adding a viola). Possibly, however, the work began to take shape earlier. Some historians credit the famous opening motif of the first movement to an organ improvisation Bruckner performed in August at Sankt-Florian at the request of a number of army officers. When he asked for a short, suitable theme, it was proposed he should improvise on a typical military signal, the so- called “retraite” (retreat).
Bruckner was perhaps so taken by it that he gave the theme an important place in the Sixth. On September 3, 1881, while staying in his beloved Sankt-Florian “Stift” (diocese), he completed the symphony. Upon returning to Vienna, he had several copies made of the score, one for his landlord Anton Oetzelt von Newin and his wife Amalie (Amy), to whom he dedicated the Sixth Symphony as a token of his gratitude. In November 1877, Bruckner had moved into his new home at Heßgasse 7 in Vienna. It was a substantial improvement over his former home at the Heinrichshof (Opernring), but, more important, he didn’t have to pay rent from his modest earnings. What’s more, even after leaving near the end of his life the Heßgasse home for the “Kustodenstöckl” (custodian’s quarters) at Belvedere palace (Emperor Franz-Joseph had placed the quarters at his service free of charge because Bruckner was having increasing difficulty climbing stairs), Oetzelt faithfully paid Bruckner a stipend of 300 gulden per month until his death.