Audiences at the March 14, 1894, premiere in Copenhagen of this symphony by a new young Danish composer were charmed to see a handsome and shy young man rise from his desk among the second violins and step forward to take the composer's bows. The audience, which included the King and Queen and other members of the royal family, was enthusiastic and called him back for three bows. The most influential critic of the day, Charles Kjerulf, was not as happy: He called the symphony "unsettled and violent in its harmonies and modulations." It was not really appreciated until it was played in Berlin in 1896, where it was great admiration and praise.
Kjerulf was correct in identifying the most distinguished and historically important aspect of the symphony (although posterity disagrees with his judgment about them). In this highly organized, amazingly logical work Nielsen was treating harmony and tonality -- and the modulations between keys -- in an original way. He was consciously seeking to avoid the Wagnerian path of extended chromatic harmony, which confused the tonal center of the music. Instead of weakening tonality (the notion that ultimately led to atonality), Nielsen found a way to apply tonality. The older way was to establish that a piece was "in" a key, a basic tonality stated at the beginning and which rules the whole musical structure. Beginning with this first symphony, Nielsen treated a particular key as the goal of the piece, but usually withheld this key until the end. Thus, this symphony starts firmly in C major. Nielsen is also freed from the need to resolve the tensions set up by the progressions of his chords through the various tonal areas of the work, allowing a symphony-long structure of tension and partial release.
The first movement is marked to be played "proudly" and can be taken as a self-portrait in music. The slow movement is a deeply moving piece that gives the impression of being a nature portrait. However, it is not slow and pastoral, but contains some sense of urgency. The third movement is more complex than the usual scherzo, and has interesting different rhythms under the overall 6/4 time signature. The fourth movement again begins in C major; with a powerful, athletic flow it reaches a deeply satisfying conclusion in which G minor is finally achieved.
The symphony was highly successful and was published nearly at once. But it also stirred jealousy among Nielsen's contemporaries, resentful that a "mere second violinist" had suddenly emerged as a major voice among young European composers.