In the second half of the 19th century, Balakirev was the guiding spirit of a group of Russian ‘nationalist’ composers called the Moguchaya Koochka, literally "the mighty handful", but better known in English as the Mighty Five, which included César Cui, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Balakirev was the only one of the group to begin as a professional musician, though he suffered periods of extreme poverty.
Born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837, the son of a minor government official, he received his first music lessons from his mother.
Study at the Alexandrovsky Institue and University of Kazan followed, and in 1855 he embarked on a musical career, playing the piano and composing. An introduction to Glinka prompted a lifelong dedication to the older composer's music, with Balakirev editing and publishing Glinka's complete works.
Though idolising the Western composers Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt, it was Glinka who provided him with the inspiration to use folk song in his composition. As early as 1862, Balakirev spent time in the Caucasus collecting folk tunes.
His success as a composer was intermittent, largely owing to his irascible personality and a tendency to make enemies as a result of his overwhelming enthusiasm and intolerance of other ideas.
As director of the St. Petersburg Free School of Music he was in particular opposition to the Germanic-influenced institutions (the Conservatory and Russian Musical Society).
In 1871, Balakirev suffered a mental crisis and from 1872 to 1876 took no part in musical life. For a short period of time he took a job at the Warsaw Railway in the goods department.
Gradually he resumed his musical life and, after retiring from the Imperial Chapel in 1895 with a large pension, was free to resume composition. He died from pleurisy in 1910.