Ippolitov-Ivanov entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1875, studying under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and graduated in 1882. That year he became conductor of the symphony orchestra and director of the music school in Tiflis (later Tbilisi), Georgia, in the region of the Caucasus mountains. During his 11 years there he became enamored of the area's folk music, which colored his own works with quasi-Oriental melodies and rhythms. A recommendation from Tchaikovsky obtained Ippolitov-Ivanov a post as composition professor at the Moscow Conservatory from 1893 to 1906; in the latter year he began serving as the institution's director. His star pupil at the conservatory was Reinhold Glière. Ippolitov-Ivanov also served as conductor of the Russian Choral Society from 1895 to 1901 (but most of his major choral works postdate that tenure), and of the Mamontova Opera in Moscow from 1899 to 1906. After his 1922 retirement from the Moscow Conservatory, Ippolitov-Ivanov spent 1924-1925 reorganizing the Georgian State Conservatory, formerly the Tbilisi School. In 1925 he returned to Moscow to become the principal conductor at the Bolshoi Theater. He oversaw the premieres of a number of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas, including The Tsar's Bride, and he supervised an important revival of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In 1931 he also completed Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Marriage.
Ippolitov-Ivanov's 11 years in the Caucasus led to the lifelong interest in Georgian folk music that inspired several of his orchestral compositions, including two suites of Caucasian Sketches (the first being the composer's only lasting hold on the concert hall, thanks to its "Procession of the Sardar"), an Armenian Rhapsody (1909), and the symphonic poem after a verse by Mikhail Lermontov, Mtsyri ("The Novice," 1922). His folk music interests extended well to the west, as well; he wrote orchestral suites on Catalan and Finnish themes. He also composed string quartets, a violin sonata, and a symphony, but most of his orchestral works were highly programmatic, the subjects careening from On the Volga (1910) to Episodes in the Life of Schubert (1929) and Year 1917. These pieces were seldom performed after the mid-twentieth century, even in the Soviet Union; likewise, his seven operas did not remain popular. So far, Ippolitov-Ivanov seems doomed to be a one-hit composer.