Displaying an immense musical talent as a child, Glazunov started studying with Rimsky-Korsakov at the age of 15. Glazunov's progress was indeed astonishing, for he completed his Symphony No. 1 at 16. In fact, his symphony, premiered by Balakirev in 1882, established, practically overnight, Glazunov's reputation as a great Russian composer. In 1884, the rich merchant and publisher Belyayev took Glazunov to Weimar, where the young composer met Liszt. Although absorbing many musical influences, particularly those of Liszt and Wagner, Glazunov eventually crafted an individual style, composing symphonies, ballets, and concertos for various instruments. Owing to his growing international fame as a symphonist, Glazunov was invited to conduct his works in Paris in 1889; an invitation from London came in 1896. During the 1890s, Glazunov composed some of his most successful works, including the fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies, and the ballet Raymonda.
In 1899, Glazunov became an instructor in composition and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He resigned his post in the politically turbulent year of 1905, incensed by the government's politically motivated dismissal of Rimsky-Korsakov from his teaching position. However, when things returned to a semblance of normalcy, Glazunov was named head of the Conservatory. While his output may have diminished in terms of sheer quantity after 1905, Glazunov continued composing until the end of his life. After the Revolution of 1917, Glazunov, as director of a major national music school, worked hard, and with varying success, to protect his students from interference by a government which viewed music as an instrument of political propaganda. In addition, he felt isolated in a culture which rejected established musical traditions, and a general feeling of alienation finally prompted him to leave the Soviet Union in 1928.
Glazunov's life in exile, which included an unsuccessful tour of the United States, was difficult but did not suppress his creative energy. He traveled around the world for several years, eventually settling in Paris. Music composed during this period includes the Concerto-Ballata for Cello and Orchestra and the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings, a standard work of the saxophone repertoire. Passionately interested in the distinctive characteristics of the instruments he composed for, Glazunov learned to play a variety of instruments, including, in addition to the obligatory piano, violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, French horn, clarinet, as well as several percussion instruments. Consequently, each of his concertos reflects a deep understanding of the instrument's nature and technical capabilities. Critics have reproached Glazunov for being too Western and insufficiently Russian. True, there are few traces in his music of Russian folk influences. However, while Glazunov's music certainly fits into the cosmopolitan culture of his time, it also embodies the unmistakable emotional and spiritual qualities which the attentive listener will recognize as Russian.