After Balakirev completed a university course in mathematics at 18, Oublichev took him to Saint Petersburg. There Balakirev met Mikhail Glinka. Glinka encouraged Balakirev to take up music as a career, advice that Balakirev took to heart. He made his debut in 1856 with the first movement from his First Piano Concerto.
Balakirev vehemently opposed academic training. He considered it a threat to the musical imagination. It was better to begin composing right away and learn through that act of creation. This line of reasoning could be argued as a rationalization to his own lack of technical training. He had been trained as a pianist and had to discover his own way to becoming a composer. Rimsky-Korsakov eventually realized as much but still gave Balakirev his due:
Balakirev, who had never had any systematic course in harmony and counterpoint and had not even superficially applied himself to them, evidently thought such studies quite unnecessary.... An excellent pianist, a superior sight reader of music, a splendid improvisor, endowed by nature with a sense of correct harmony and part-writing, he possessed a technique partly native and partly acquired through a vast musical erudition, with the help of an extraordinary memory, keen and retentive, which means so much in steering a critical course in musical literature. Then, too, he was a marvelous critic, especially a technical critic. He instantly felt every technical imperfection or error, he grasped a defect in form at once
Balakirev instructed the other members of "The Five" much as he instructred himself—by an empirical approach, sifting through scores of the great composers. About this Rimsky-Korsakov was more critical:
With all his native mentality and brilliant abilities, there was one thing he failed to understand: that what was good for him in the matter of musical education was of no use whatsoever for others, as these others not only had grown up amid entirely different surroundings, but possessed utterly different natures; that the development of their talents was bound to take place at different intervals and in a different manner.
Balakirev's eventual undoing was his demand that his students' musical tastes coincide exactly with his own. Even the slightest deviation was prohibited. Whenever someone played one of his own compositions for Balakirev, Balakirev would seat himself at the piano and improvise, showing how the composition should be changed. Passages in other people's works came out sounding like his music, not their own. For a while he was obeyed absolutely.
The group encountered harsh criticism from the existing Russian musical establishment in the form of Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, who publicly called the group "amateurs" (something that was not entirely unjustified, as Balakirev was the only professional musician of the group). To counteract these criticisms and to aid in the creation of a distinctly "Russian" school of music, the group founded the Free School of Music in 1862.
Like the Russian Musical Society (RMS), the Free School offered concerts as well as education. Between 1862 and 1867 Balakirev and Lomankin conducted these concerts, which offered less conservative programming than the RMS concerts. They included the music of Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, Russian composers Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky, along with the first works of The Five
When Anton Rubinstein relinquished directorship of the RMS concerts in 1867, Balakirev was suggested to replace him. The conservative patron for the RMS, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, agreed—provided Nikolai Zaremba, who had taken over for Rubinstein at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory was also appointed, along with a distinguished foreign composer. The foreign composer chosen was Hector Berlioz. The choice of Berlioz was widely lauded. Balakirev's appointment was seen less enthusiastically. Balakirev's uncompromising nature caused tension at the RMS. His choice of modern repertoire for the RMS concerts earned him the enmity of Pavlovna, as well. In 1869, she informed him that his services were no longer required.
Balakirev's influence over the other members of "The Five" also began to wane. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov stopped accepting what they now considered his high-handed meddling with their work. Stasov also began to distance himself from Balakirev.
This exchange of letters grew into both a long-term friendship and, over the next two years, a creative collaboration. Balakirev was the right person at the right time in Tchaikovsky's creative life. While Tchaikovsky may have benefited technically from Anton Rubinstein's teaching at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he was ready for someone to challenge his creative gifts rigorously, with demands for results both first-rate in compositional quality and fully individual in character. Balakirev was not afraid to impose just these demands. In doing so he remained strong-willed to the point of despotism. Tchaikovsky liked and admired Balakirev but also found him frustrating. He wrote his brother Anatoly, "I never feel quite at home with him. I particularly don't like the narrowness of his musical views and the sharpness of his tone."
Balakirev helped Tchaikovsky produce his first masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. The subject was Balakirev's idea. He broached it to Tchaikovsky and his friend Nikolai Kashkin during an extended visit to Moscow. While Balakirev was never prone to underestimating himself, he may not have realized how apt a subject this was for Tchaikovsky, or how exactly right the theme of tragic love would fire Tchaikovsky's imagination.
The birthing process proved both hard and protracted. When Tchaikovsky complained initially about being "burnt out", Balakirev sent an enormous letter, outlining how he had composed his overture to King Lear the previous year, plus a detailed plan for Romeo, including suggestions for key schemes. Not happy with some of Tchaikovsky's inital efforts, Balakirev pushed him for better music and offered further suggestions. The piece would pass back and forth between the two composers for the next 10 years, when Tchaikovsky made his final revisions. Balakirev regretted Tchaikovsky's decision, after the premiere on March 28, 1870, to rush Romeo into print. Even as he insisted that the beginning and end needed "complete rewriting," Balakirev admired some passages so much that he could soon play the entire work on the piano.
Though its first performance was a failure, Romeo would soon bring Tchaikovsky his first national and inrternational acclaim. It would also become a work The Five lauded unconditionally. On hearing the love theme from Romeo, Stasov told the group, "There were five of you: now there are six.
After Romeo and Juliet, the two men drifted apart as Balakirev took a sabbatical from the music world (more below). In 1880, Balakirev received a copy of the final version of the score of Romeo from Tchaikovsky, care of the music publisher Besel. Delighted Tchaikovsky had not forgotten him, he replied with an invitation for Tchaikovsky to visit him in Saint Petersburg. In the same letter, he forwarded "the programme for another symphony which you would handle wonderfully well." This programme, originally penned by Stasov for Hector Berlioz, was based on Lord Byron's Manfred. Tchaikovsky intitally said no. Balakirev refused to take no for an answer and continued to encourage Tchaikovsky to "make an effort. Two years later, Tchaikovsky changed his mind. His Manfred Symphony, which he would finish in 1885, would become the largest, most complex work he had yet written. As with Romeo and Juliet and Fatum, Tchaikovsky dedicated the Manfred Symphony to Balakirev.
This rivalry caused financial difficulties for both concert societies. RMS membership declined. The Free School continued to suffer from chronic money troubles. Soon the Free Music School could not pay Balakirev. Its 1870-71 series had to be cut short. The RMS then scored the coup de grace of assigning its programming to Mikhaíl Azanchevsky, who took over as director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. Azanchevsky was more progressively-minded than his predecessors. He was a staunch believer in contemporary music on the whole and Russian contemporary music in particular. For the opening concert of the RMS 1871-72 season, conductor Eduard Nápravník, presented the first public performances of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and the polonaise from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. This kind of programming made Balakirev's concerts unnecessary and redundant.
These problems drove Balakirev to a nervous breakdown in 1872. He took a break from the musical world, which eventually lasted five years, but neglected to give up his post as director of the Free Music School. He finally resigned in 1874 and was replaced by Rimsky-Korsakov. Financial distress forced Balakirev to become a railway clerk on the Warsaw railroad line. Disillusioned, exhausted and suffering from bouts of deep depression, he sought solace in the strictest sect of Russian Orthodoxy.
By the 1880s, Balakirev had resumed his musical activities. After holding several jobs, such as that of a school inspector, he was appointed director of the Imperial Chapel and conductor of the Imperial Musical Society in 1883. He held this post until 1895, when he took his final retirement. He also composed in earnest. In 1882 he finished Tamara and revised his "symphonic picture" 1,000 Years two years later, retitling it Rus. Between 1895 and 1910 he completed two symphonies, a piano sonata and two movements of his Second Piano Concerto, along with republishing his collection of folk-song arrangements. Unlike his earlier days, Balakirev composed in isolation, aware that younger composers now considered his compositional style old-fashioned.
His influence as a conductor, and as an organizer of Russian music, give him the place as a founder of a new movement. Though he was one of the founders of the Free School, he strongly opposed what he termed "musical professionalism," qualities he associated with the established Russian music scene in the mid 1800s. He sought to imprint his vision of music onto his students, and was thus the de facto head of the five during their existence. He ruled this group often with a strong hand. Mussorgsky in particular often came under fire from his teacher; due to Balakirev's harsh criticism of his Night on Bald Mountain, the work was never performed in Mussorgsky's lifetime. Outside of the group, Balakirev also greatly encouraged Peter Tchaikovsky in his studies, eventually inspiring him to write the Manfred Symphony (something that Tchaikovsky acknowledged when he dedicated the piece to Balakirev).