Shortly after Balakirev began the work in 1867 he went through depression so severe that his friends hid all of his works in progress for feat that he would destroy them. In 1876 he had recovered enough to take up the work again but it took him another three yeas to finish the piano score. He waited another two years before he orchestrated the work and it finally had its premiere in 1883. It is dedicated to Franz Liszt and he asked for a four handed arrangement of the work for study, which Balakirev did shortly after the request.
The work begins with music that represents the water of the river. The main body of the work focuses on two love themes representing Tamara's seductiveness. Balakirev expands these two themes and develops them until the music reaches a climax as Tamara murders the traveler. The work ends as it began with the rippling of the river Terek as it carries away the corpse.
Balakirev was one of the most naturally gifted musicians of 19th century Russia, and while he was influential he may have been even more so if not for the mental illness he suffered from. After his so-called recovery from depression he was never the same person. He coped with mental illness enough to function, but he didn't really develop past the point where he was at in 1867. Nevertheless, he managed to write some great works, with Tamara being one of the best.