Nikolai Roslavets was born on 23 December 1880 in the former Russian governorate of Tchernigov, probably in the village of Surazh. In 1912 Roslawez finished his studies of composition with Sergey Vassilenko, of music theory with Alexander Ilyinski and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and of the violin with Ivan Grzhimali at the Moscow Conservatoire. His dissertation was awarded the Great Silver Medal.
As to style, Roslavets was first inspired by Alexander Skryabin and in parts by the 'modern French' too. However, he soon freed himself of their influences and distanced himself from them. In his search for his own tonal language, he developed his 'new system of tone organization' and the principle of the 'synthetic chord'. These are quite frequently compared to Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-note technique. Roslavets' principles, however, were developed completely independently of Schoenberg's ideas. 'Synthetic chords' are special sound complexes selected for concrete works which, in most cases, are made up of six to ten tones and define various parameters of each concrete work, like a 'superformula'.
According to Roslavets, Skryabin's notion of 'synthetic chord' underlines the synthetic character of his technique which covers all achievements of the classical and Romantic periods, of polytonality and ultrachromaticism. Roslavets developed this system in the years 1909 to 1919. Examples can be found in Melancholy Landscapes (1913), in Three and Four Compositions for voice and piano (1913/14), in the String Quartet No. 1 (1913), in the Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (1913 and 1917 respectively) as well as in the Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (1914 and 1916 respectively). During that time, Roslavets also experimented with new orchestral colours: In the symphonic poem In the Hours of the New Moon (probably 1912/13) the tone colour plays a constructive role which is equal to the thematic and motivic work. Even that time's chamber music is characterized by a refined sense of tone colour. Traditional principles are of almost no importance in the rhythm and metre of these experimental works.
Even before the Revolution, Roslavets worked as a free-lance composer and music critic in Moscow and joined the circle of 'contemporaries' around Vladimir Derzhanovsky, Leonid Sabaneyev, Nikolai Myaskovsky and others, the core of the future Association of Contemporary Music (ACM).
After the February Revolution of 1917, he joined the non-Marxist party of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) and in 1918 the 'Popular Communists'. In 1921 Roslavets left the party. The composer had to keep quiet about his closest contacts to the SR party which had been forbidden and destroyed by the Bolsheviks and in which Roslavets had played a leading role.
In the 1920s, Roslavets was one of the ACM leaders who eagerly championed both the distribution of new music and the maintenance of classical traditions. In works such as the cantata October (1927) and the symphonic poem Komsomoliya (1928), he devoted himself to the 'monumental propaganda'. At the same time, he continued to work on his 'new system' and explored principles of counterpoint, rhythm and form.
His activities were attacked and denounced by so-called 'Proletarian musicians' who were in direct contact with the Communist Party and the secret police as being 'formalistic' and 'anti-working-class'. Eventually, Roslavets was banned from pursuing his profession. In 1931 he left Moscow and moved to Tashkent where he worked as a conductor, composer and head of the music department of the local music theatre.
Works such as the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1925), the chamber music compositions for various instrumentations are characterized by their inclination to the monumental as well as by a certain simplification of the tonal language which was typical of the so-called 'academic innovations'. His works in the 1930s culminate in the Chamber Symphony (1934/35) in which the composer combines classical and modern principles in a new way. Some works from that decade show a decrease of his creative activities and the ideological constraint to write in a manner that was foreign to him. Standing out among his later compositions are Sonata No. 6 and 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano (1941/42), as well as String Quartet No. 5 (1941).
In 1933 Roslavets returned to Moscow where he kept his head above water as a day labourer. As 'public enemy', he was one of the condemned composers of Russia for several decades until the last years of his life.