Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg, just like Felix Mendelssohn. And like Mendelssohn, he was convinced of the value of the legacy of previous generations of composers. Mendelssohn and Brahms orientated themselves at the First Viennese School (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn), while Liszt and Wagner, who both belonged to the Neudeutsche Schule, sought new forms. But according to Brahms, Liszt and his peers went too far. Brahms, who stood for seriousness and tradition, did not see the need to develop new genres. He chose to breathe new life into the existing genres and to apply modern, romantic principles to the forms that already existed.
The First Symphony is a fine illustration of Brahms' point of view. It was written after Beethoven's model of the monumental heroic symphony. The stormy opening refers with its tonality to Beethoven's Fifth, while the hymnical theme in the finale refers to Die Ode an die Freude from Beethoven's Ninth. In this way, Brahms demonstrates that a similar theme can be transposed perfectly symphonically, without using voices and text - an implicit criticism of Beethoven, but especially of Wagner. He thus refuted Wagner's view that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony marked the end of the symphony as a genre, and had to lead to the sung music drama.
Brahms worked on his First Symphony for almost two decades. The pressure was enormous: the audience saw in him the great successor of Beethoven, and the shadow of the great composer weighed heavily. When he had finished the symphony in 1876, it was actually named Beethoven's "Tenth Symphony" by some critics due to many references to Beethoven's heritage. But the important Austrian critic Edward Hanslick also laureled the symphony as "one of the most individual and magnificent works in the symphonic literature". Brahms conquered his place with it in the pantheon of the great composers - not in the shadow of, but beside his great example.