Mily Balakirev

Portrait of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He is particularly known today for his encouragement of Tchaikovsky. He was born on 2nd January 1837 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia and died on 29th May 1910 in Saint Petersburg, Russia aged 73.

Major Works

Russia” (1864)
“Islamey” (1869)
Tamara” (1882)

Biography Timeline

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev was born on 2nd January 1837 in Nizhny Novgorod into a noble Russian family. His father, Alexey Konstantinovich Balakirev, was a Titular Councillor official in the government. His mother, Elizaveta Ivanovna Balakireva (née Yasherova) introduced him to the piano from the age of four, and he later took a course of lessons with Alexander Dubuque in Moscow.

1847: Death of his mother from smallpox. 

1849: He goes to the Nizhny Novgorod Noble Institute of Alexander the Second. There he finds a patron, Alexander Ulybyshev, who was a music-loving local landowner who had written books about Mozart and Beethoven. Balakirev’s musical education is given to the pianist Karl Eisrach who holds musical evenings at the Ulybyshev estate.

1853: On completing his secondary education in the Nizhniy Novgorod gymnasium, Balakirev studies mathematics at the University of Kazan. He takes in pupils to supplement his income.

1855: He finishes university in the Autumn and goes with Ulybyshev to St Petersburg. There he meets composers Mikhail Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Cwsae Cui, Serov and L’vov.

1856: He makes his debut in a university concert in February, playing the completed movement from his First Piano Concerto. This is followed a month later with a concert of other piano and chamber compositions.

1857: He follows Mikhail Glinka as the director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Glinka recommend him and wanted him also to teach his niece.

1858: His first publication are several songs and he continues composing for voice and piano intermittently. He plays the solo part in Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” in front of the Tsar of Russia.

1859: He has 12 more songs published. This does not bring much money so he has to support himself by continuing to give piano lessons and by playing at evening performances for the local aristocrats. 

1861: He works with other composers with similar ideas. These include Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin who joined them later the following year. Together with Cesar Cui, this group has been known in English as “The Five”.

1862: Gavriil Lomakin, a local choirmaster, opens the Free School of Music as a more Russian and democratic alternative to the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Balakirev becomes committed to the project. He spends the summer in the Caucasus, mainly in Essentuki.

1864: He was never a speedy composer and although he begins writing Symphony No. 1 in this year it was not completed until 1897. He considers writing an opera about the legend of the Firebird but abandons it due to the lack of a libretto. He completes his “Second Overture on Russian Themes” which is performed at a Free School concert in April.

1865: He encourages Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin to complete their first symphonies.

1866: His “Collection of Russian Folksongs” is published. He begins a Symphony in C Major, but only completes part of it. He spends some time editing Glinka’s works for publication, on behalf of the composer’s sister, Lyudmilla Shestakova and travels to Prague to arrange the production of Glinka’s operas.

1867: He composes a fantasy on themes from “A Life for the Tsar” and directs the operas “A Life for the Tsar” and “Ruslan and Ludmila” in Prague during February. Back in St Petersburg he begins a series of concerts for the Russian Music Society at which he conducts the first performance of Mussorgsky’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” during March.

1868: He replaces Gavriil Lomakin as the director of The Free School of Music.

1869: His appointment with the Russian Music Society ends when the Society’s patroness complains that Balakirev’s programmes are too uncompromisingly modern and Russian. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky comes to his defence by writing an article in the “Contemporary Chronicle” Singing his praises. Balakirev had already conducted Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem “Fatum” at the Society which was dedicated to him. He begins the original version of “Islamy” in August, finishing it a month later. Nikolai Rubenstein premieres it as the “Oriental Fantasy”. His father dies in June.

1871: In the spring rumours circulate that Balakirev has suffered a nervous breakdown. He takes a five-year break from music, and his musical friends, but does not destroy his manuscripts as he had threatened to do.

1872: Woefully short of money he takes a job with a railway company and although originally an atheist he becomes heavily involved in Orthodox Christianity and extreme political views.

1874: He had forgotten to resign from the Free Music School and the directors remind him and he is replaced by Rimsky-Korsakov.

1876: He begins editing many of Glinka’s compositions for publication.

1880: He receives a copy of the final version of the score of “Romeo and Juliet” from Tchaikovsky via the music publisher Besel. Delighted he had not been forgotten he invited Tchaikovsky to visit him in Saint Petersburg.

1881: He is offered the directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, along with the conductorship of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society but he declines both. Instead, he resumes the directorship of the Free School of Music.

1882: He finishes “Tamara”. 

1883: He is appointed musical director of the Imperial Court Kapella (or Chapel Choir), There he makes some settings and arrangements of music for the Russian church.

1884: He revises his Symphonic picture “1,000 Years” retitling it “Rus”.

1885: Tchaikovsky completes the “Manfred Symphony” and dedicates it to Balakirev. 

1895: Between 1895 and 1910 he completes two symphonies, a piano sonata and two movements of his Second Piano Concerto along with republishing his collection of folk-song arrangements. He resigns as musical director of the Imperial Court Kapella (or Chapel Choir).

1899: He finally gets a publisher for his work when he meets the music publisher J.H. Zimmermann in St Petersburg.

Mily Balakirev died on 29th May 1910 in St Petersburg and was buried in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.