Mily Balakirev learned his craft from local musicians. Conductor Karl Eisrich introduced Balakirev to the music of Chopin, Glinka, and Alexander Ulybyshev, a music loving landowner who maintained a vast library of musical scores. In 1855, Balakirev composed his Piano Fantasia on Themes from Glinka's a Life for the Tsar, and Ulybyshev took Balakirev to St. Petersburg to meet Glinka himself. Glinka appreciated Balakirev's talent, and offered advice and encouragement. Balakirev enjoyed a brilliant debut as a pianist in St. Petersburg, and in 1858 performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in the presence of the Tsar. In April 1858, Balakirev fell ill with "brain fever"; although he recovered, he would suffer from lifelong headaches, nervousness, and depression. With the deaths of both Glinka and Ulybyshev, Balakirev decided to carry on their ideas of a style reflective of the Russian national spirit. Balakirev wrote incidental music to Shakespeare's play King Lear in 1859-1861, and its resulting popularity enhanced his reputation. In 1861, Balakirev established the Free School of Music with Gabriel Lomakin, with the support of Tsar Nicolas. At the Free School's concerts, Balakirev programmed his own music and that of his students -- Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Borodin. This last-named group, along with Balakirev himself, were dubbed the "Mighty Handful" in the Russian press, and recognized as the standard bearers of a new form of Russian musical art.
When Lomakin resigned from the Free School in November 1867, Balakirev assumed its directorship. Along with his prestige came an increased lack of sensitivity and overbearing personality traits; by the late 1860s, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were exchanging letters complaining about Balakirev's "interference." Likewise, St. Petersburg audiences were protesting the lack of light, familiar fare on the Free School concert programs. Balakirev stepped down from the directorship of the Free School in April 1869, but bounced back with his most famous work, the brilliant piano fantasy Islamey, premiered by Nicholas Rubinstein in December. Rubinstein played the work at concerts in Paris and elsewhere, and it achieved great popularity in the West. In addition, Balakirev met and encouraged Tchaikovsky, who composed his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture under the older composer's watchful eye. The Free School's concert season of 1871-1872 was a disaster; as a result, Balakirev lapsed into a depression lasting five years, and Rimsky-Korsakov overtook the direction of the institution. Friends helped revive Balakirev's spirits, and he returned as an instructor in 1877, but began to match temperaments with Rimsky-Korsakov, who resigned in 1880. Balakirev returned to the post of director, and in 1883 premiered his finest work, the symphonic poem Tamara. Well received in Russia, Tamara was a true revelation for musicians in France, who were amazed by the textures of Russian orchestral color.
In 1883, Balakirev accepted the position of Music Director of Imperial Chapel, naming Rimsky-Korsakov as his assistant. Three years later, Balakirev quarreled with his publisher, Jurgenson, and was dropped from their roster. In 1890, Rimsky-Korsakov held a gala in honor of his own 25th anniversary as a composer; Balakirev refused to attend, occasioning the final break in their relations. Having retired from the Imperial Chapel in 1894, Balakirev made his final public appearance conducting his First Symphony at the Free School in 1898. On the strength of this symphony Balakirev acquired a new publisher, and resumed composition, including the "Glinka" Cantata (1904) and a Second Symphony (1909). Unfortunately, these later works were received with complete indifference. As he had offended practically everyone in his social circle, few friends were left to comfort Balakirev in his last years. He died at the age of 73.