Arensky certainly didn't hesitate to try his hand at large forms; among his first four published works are a piano concerto and this first of his two symphonies. Arensky wrote the work at age 22, during his first year as professor at the Moscow Conservatory. If the young composer relied a bit too heavily on Chopin as a model for the piano concerto, his first symphony is clearly inspired by models closer to home: Rimsky-Korsakov and especially Taneyev.
The first movement, despite its ominous, snarling Adagio introduction and its later tempo indication of Allegro patetico, is actually an energetic, mostly happy work. The impulsive first theme bustles about, over snatches of the movement's opening "growl." This gives way to another motif, highly lyrical but including a figure drawn from the introduction. Arensky subjects all this material to a full, dramatic development, richly orchestrated in a manner inspired by but not quite matching Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Andante pastorale con moto begins with an ominous note in the horns, but immediately relaxes into a long, lyrical melody that flows smoothly through the orchestra. It's a balletic slow movement that calls to mind Glazunov in general and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden in particular. A threatening second subject rises from the depths of the orchestra and nudges the music into a long passage of emotional disquiet. Ultimately, the sweeter melody from the movement's beginning returns with a passionate if brief climax, followed by a reflective closing section.
The Scherzo, Allegro con spirito, is a gruff, strongly rhythmic Russian symphonic dance. For all their high spirits (and Arensky's beloved, if odd, 5/4 meter), the movement's outer sections are quite dark. The long central section, in contrast, makes good use of woodwinds and percussion for delicate, exotic, quasi-Oriental effects.
Even more Russian is the finale, Allegro giocoso. Here Arensky directly quotes melodies found in Balakirev's collection Russian Folk Songs (40). It's a hodgepodge of chipper tunes, orchestrated boldly and beefily (including lavish use of tambourine) but not without contrasting, delicate episodes for woodwinds. Perhaps more than any other part of the score, the exuberant, Rimsky-Korsakov-like finale led Arensky's contemporaries to praise this symphony for its youthful spirit, while politely noting its lack of complete originality.