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The work is based on poems written by the composer and was completed in 1880. It consisted of three movements which bore the following titles: Waldmärchen (A Tale from the Woods), Der Spielmann (The Minstrel), Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece)
The composer subjected the score to several revisions and eventually arrived at a version in which the first movement was omitted altogether and movements Nos 2 and 3 lost their titles and were thoroughly reworked. This new version was published in 1899 by Weinberger and premiered under Mahler's baton in Vienna in 1901.
The work was taken over in 1906 by Universal Edition, together with other compositions by Mahler. Subsequently, he subjected the score to yet another revision, which was then published in a study score. It was this version that Rudolph Stephan included in volume 12 of his complete edition of Mahler's works in 1978.
The manuscript of the original version was acquired by the Osborn Collection of the Music Library at Yale University. The first movement was published in 1969 by Belwin Mills in the United States in a provisional, not critical, edition. There followed performances and recordings of a three-movement "mongrel" version, with the first movement representing the original version as published by Belwin Mills and movements 2 and 3 taken from the Weinberger/UE edition of the revised score.
The work as composed by Mahler in 1880 has first been performed in its entirety on 7th October 1997 in Manchester. It appeared in volume 3 of the supplement to the complete edition edited by Reinhold Kubik, who is also general editor of the complete edition.