He was born at Nizhny-Novgorod, and had the advantage as a boy of living with Oulibichev, author of a biography of Mozart, who had a private band, and from whom Balakirev obtained a valuable education in music. At eighteen, after a university course in mathematics, he went to Saint Petersburg, full of national ardour, and there made the acquaintance of Mikhail Glinka. Round him gathered César Cui and others, and in 1862 the Free School of Music was established.
In 1869 Balakirev was appointed director of the imperial chapel and conductor of the Imperial Musical Society. His influence as a conductor, and as an organizer of Russian music, give him the place of a founder of a new movement. His works consist largely of songs and collections of folk songs, but include a symphony (first played in England in 1901), two symphonic poems (Russia and Tamara), and four overtures, and a number of piano pieces, including Islamey, or Oriental Fantasy. His orchestral works are generally pieces of programme music in a style developed by Balakirev’s disciples, such as Alexander Borodin and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.