Born in St Petersburg, Anatol Konstantinovich Lyadov received his first instruction from his father, a conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre. His tuition, although unsystematic, seems to have been thorough since he entered the conservatoire at the age of 15, excelling as a pianist only to give it up in favour of composition. This he studied under Rimsky-Korsakov, although he attended few classes and was expelled before being allowed to return in order to complete his graduation composition. From his graduation in 1878 he taught various compositional disciplines at the conservatory, and from 1885 he taught at the court chapel.
Via Balakirev, Lyadov was associated with the 'Mighty Handful', and worked to preserve Russian folk music both through ethnomusical observation and through use of folk themes in his own work. This latter aspect may have been indicative of both his characteristic laziness and his self-critical nature; thinking himself incapable of developing his own themes, he composed variations on existing material. Also with 'The Five', he helped edit a complete edition of the works of their idol, Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka . He was active as a conductor around the musical scene of St Petersburg, but held no permanent positions.
Lyadov was not a prolific composer; he wrote many sets of short piano pieces, although his 1909 orchestral work Volshebnoye ozero (The Enchanted Lake) has gained a place in the repertoire. Indeed, whether one attributes this lack of productivity to laziness or perfectionism, it gave rise to one of the most famous aspects of his career; failure to complete a ballet score for Dyagilev in 1910 gave Lyadov's pupil Stravinsky the opportunity to write his first major success, The Firebird .