Anton Arensky was born in Novgorod, Russia. He was musically precocious and had composed a number of songs and piano pieces by the age of nine. With his mother and father, he moved to Saint Petersburg in 1879, where he studied composition at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
After graduating from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1882, Arensky became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students there were Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Gretchaninov.
In 1895 Arensky returned to Saint Petersburg as the director of the Imperial Choir, a post for which he had been recommended by Mily Balakirev. Arensky retired from this position in 1901, spending his remaining time as a pianist, conductor, and composer.
Arensky was perhaps at his best in chamber music, writing two string quartets, two piano trios, and a piano quintet. Tchaikovsky was the greatest influence on Arensky's musical compositions. The perception that he lacked a distinctive personal style contributed to long-term neglect of his music, though in recent years a large number of his compositions have been recorded. Especially popular are the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra, Op. 35a - arranged from the slow movement of Arensky's 2nd string quartet, and based on one of Tchaikovsky's Songs for Children, Op. 54.
Arensky died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Perkjärvi, Finland at the age of 44. It is alleged that drinking and gambling undermined his health. The Antarctic Arensky Glacier was named after him.