When he finished his studies, he began working as voice teacher at a music school in Prague. He didn't stay there long, and in 1841, he moved to Budapest, where he was employed as a piano teacher and a reporter for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. He pretty much composed in obscurity until 1852, when his Piano Trio in B-flat minor caught the ears of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow, who proceeded to play it several times all over Europe. In 1854, Volkmann moved to Vienna, only to return to Budapest in 1858.
Thanks to the publisher Gustav Heckenast, who in 1857 bought the rights to publish all Volkmann's works in exchange for regular income regardless of sales, Volkmann was able to fully dedicate himself to composition, until Heckenast closed down his Budapest publishing house in the early 1870s.
While visiting Vienna in 1864, Volkmann became acquainted with Johannes Brahms, and they became close friends. In letters they addressed each other as "lieber Freund" ("dear friend").
In the 1870s Volkmann began winding down on his life, composing very little. From 1875 until his death, Volkmann was professor of harmony and counterpoint at the National Academy of Music in Budapest. (Franz Liszt was the director there). Volkmann died on October 30, 1883.
Most of Volkmann's compositions are either for solo piano or ensembles including piano. It was his Piano Trio in B flat minor that first brought him renown. During his 4-year stay in Vienna, Volkmann composed his Variations on a Theme of Handel, String Quartets No. 3 and No. 4 in E minor, and the Cello Concerto in A minor.
Almost all of Volkmann's orchestral works date to the time of his association with Heckenast. (They are few enough to fit on two CDs.). These include an Overture for William Shakespeare's play "Richard III", an Overture in C major, the Symphony No. 1 in D minor (which was a major success when premiered in Moscow) and the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, dedicated to the Russian Musical Society.
Volkmann believed that a composer should be satisfied with creating in the listeners' minds the desired mood and impression by purely musical means; if the contours of the action and the plot are recognized by the listener, this should be considered a happy coincidence.
When Volkmann's Symphony No. 1 was played on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Two request show, in early 1998, announcer Shelagh Rogers remarked that "It sounds almost like a forgotten work by Brahms... almost."
Unlike the serious No. 1, the Symphony No. 2 is rather cheerful. Robert Volkmann's grandson, Hans Volkmann, remarks: "After Haydn, naïve cheerfulness was only extremely rarely chosen as the basic mood of an entire Symphony."