Brahms himself declared that the symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years, from 1855 to 1876. The premiere of this symphony, conducted by the composer's friend Felix Otto Dessoff, occurred on November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, then in the Grand Duchy of Baden. A typical performance lasts between 45 and 50 minutes.
Brahms began composing his first symphony in 1854, but much of his work underwent radical changes. The long gestation of the symphony may be attributed to two factors. First, Brahms' self-critical fastidiousness led him to destroy many of his early works. Second, there was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue "Beethoven's inheritance" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven.
The value and importance of Brahms' achievements were recognized by Vienna's most powerful critic, the staunchly conservative Eduard Hanslick. The conductor Hans von Bülow was moved in 1877 to call the symphony "Beethoven's Tenth", due to perceived similarities between the work and various compositions of Beethoven. It is often remarked that there is a strong resemblance between the main theme of the finale of Brahms' First Symphony and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Also, Brahms uses the rhythm of the "fate" motto from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This rather annoyed Brahms; he felt that this amounted to accusations of plagiarism, whereas he saw his use of Beethoven's idiom in this symphony as an act of conscious homage. Brahms himself said, when comment was made on the similarity with Beethoven, "any ass can see that." Nevertheless, this work is still often referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth". However, Brahms' horn theme, with the "fate" rhythm, was noted in a letter to Clara Schumann (dated 1868), overheard in an alphorn's playing.
Fritz Simrock, Brahms' friend and publisher, did not receive the score until after the work had been performed in three cities (with Brahms still wishing trial performances in at least three more still).
The manuscript to the first movement apparently does not survive, yet the remainder has been reproduced in miniature facsimile by Dover Publications. The autograph manuscript of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements is held by The Morgan Library & Museum.