The first symphony contains many examples of composers and music that had influenced him. Beethoven in structure, Tchaikovsky in feeling and mood, folk song in melody (although no folk songs were used in the symphony), Bruckner in the use of the orchestra. By the time of the symphony's writing, Sibelius was thirty-three years old, had given up his life-long dream of being a violin virtuoso, and was making his way as a composer and conductor. He conducted the premiere of the work, but revised it after the performance. The revised version is the one most often played.
The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Andante, ma non troppo - Allegro energico - The many tempo indications gives the idea of a symphony that is in a state of change and development throughout. A clarinet plays softly over a drum roll to open the work, the strings enter and swiftly climb to a climax of sorts. This is the movement that some critics think shows an influence by Tchaikovsky. But the rugged sound of Sibelius comes through any influence and propels the music to climax after climax, until the movement ends with a loud statement from the brass and low strings that tapers off into soft pizzicatos from the strings.
II. Andante (ma non troppo lento) - A sensitive and tuneful theme that sounds like a folk song. Sibelius treats it in his own unique way. Tender, yet still with the Nordic, rugged quality that is a hallmark of Sibelius' music.
III. Scherzo: Allegro - The theme of the scherzo is heard in the timpani as the upper strings pluck out the beat. A boisterous scherzo that propels itself headlong until it hits the trio, where it slows and softens. After the trio, the scherzo resumes its rapid tempo until the timpani and brass bring the rushing music to an abrupt end.
IV. Finale: Andante - Allegro molto - Andante assai - Allegro molto come prima - Andante (ma non troppo) - The clarinet melody of the first movement is transformed into a passionate theme. This movement is marked quasi una fantasia, and the frequent changes in tempo do give the movement a sense of a fantasia. This finale brings all the loose ends of the symphony together and ties them up in a beautiful hymn-like tune gently played by the orchestra. Punctuated by the harp and timpani, this tune unwinds itself until the orchestra returns to a somewhat frantic pace that leads to a climax punctuated by the timpani, brass and strings. The hymn returns in the clarinet, the tune floats through the orchestra, gradually gets louder until the strings bring it to full bloom. A short coda has the orchestra grow in volume and the music comes rushing to an end, with soft pizzicatos in the strings like the closing of the first movement.