He had already written a symphony in F minor, the so-called Study Symphony, and he began what was to become Symphony No. 1 right after it. During the writing of the symphony he traveled to Munich to hear the premiere of Wagner's Tristan And Isolde, which probably inspired him all the more to finish the symphony. He worked for over a year on it, writing and rewriting, sometimes scrapping entire movements and beginning over. He finished the score in August of 1866, fifteen months after he had begun. Bruckner gave the symphony a nickname, das kecke Beserl, which is Austrian slang and roughly translates as 'the saucy maid', perhaps because of the spirit of the symphony, or perhaps for some other reason that we'll never know.
The symphony was premiered two years later in Linz with Bruckner himself conducting. The audience was sparse and the reception of the work mixed. No doubt some were surprised that Bruckner, the organist at the local church, could create such music. In later years Bruckner was in the habit of revising his earlier works. The 1st Symphony was no exception, and in 1890 Bruckner created a new version. For many years this was the only version that was played, but modern conductors prefer to play the earlier Linz version (so named because Bruckner wrote it when he lived in Linz.)
The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro - The model for almost all of the beginnings of Bruckner's symphonies is the opening of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Like Beethoven's opening, Bruckner usually begins with a mysterious, quiet beginning with string tremolos and slow moving themes. But while Bruckner had seen the score for Beethoven's 9th, he did not actually hear it until this 1st symphony had been written. So this is the only Bruckner symphonies that begins right off with a marching theme that rapidly reaches a climax, only to die down again to the marching of the low strings. This leads to a transitional theme played by the flute which ushers in a secondary main theme. A climax is reached in the brass, the music dies down to a gentle tune played by the flute. The development section omits any reference to the opening march, but its return signals the recapitulation. After revisiting material from the exposition, Bruckner brings the movement to a thundering close with a short development of the opening march theme.
II. Adagio - Tonal ambiguity begins this movement but Bruckner eventually settles on A-flat. The music is solemn in part, but it ebbs and flows with passion and expression, an early example of Bruckner's skill as a composer of slow movements. About three-quarters of the way through there is a major climax (amid the usual number of Brucknerian lesser climaxes) and amid yet more ebbs and flows, the music winds down to a slow, quiet end.
III. - Scherzo: Schnell - Trio: Langsamer - The trademarks of the Bruckner scherzo are already present in this early example as the music propels itself with strong rhythmic drive and changing dynamics. The trio provides a contrast to the drive of the scherzo as it is more slowly paced and smoother in contour. The scherzo is repeated and stomps its way to the end of the movement.
IV. Finale: Bewegt, feurig - The movement begins double forte, is full of changes in tempo and dynamics. Roughly half way through, the music slams on the brakes and comes to a sudden stop. It takes a while for the music to get back up to speed until the music builds up to a triumphant ending in C major.