Lalo was born in Lille (Nord), in northernmost France. He attended that city's music conservatory in his youth. Then, beginning at age 16, Lalo studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Berlioz's old enemy François Antoine Habeneck. For several years, he worked as a string player and teacher in Paris. In 1848, he joined with friends to found the Armingaud Quartet, playing viola and second violin. Lalo's earliest surviving compositions are songs and chamber works. (Two early symphonies were destroyed.) Julie Besnier de Maligny, a contralto from Brittany, became his bride in 1865. She aroused Lalo's early interest in opera and led him to compose works for the stage. Unfortunately, they were deemed too progressive and Wagnerian and were not initially well received despite their freshness and originality. This led him to dedicate most of his career to the composition of chamber music, which was in vogue, and to writing works for orchestra.
Although Lalo is not one of the most immediately recognized names in French music, his distinctive style has earned him some degree of popularity. Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra still enjoys a prominent place in violinists' repertoire, and is known in many classical circles simply as "The Lalo". Lalo is also known for concertos, including his Cello Concerto in D minor. The same Breton legend that inspired "Le roi d'Ys", went on to spark the creation of his Symphony in G Minor and chamber works. Lalo's style is notable for strong melodies and colourful orchestration, with a rather Germanic solidity that distinguishes him from other musical styles of his era. Such works as the Scherzo in D minor, one of Lalo's most colorful compositions, might be considered appropriate embodiments of his distinctive style and strong expressive bent.
Lalo did not gain fame as a composer until his late forties. "Le roi d'Ys" ("The King of Ys"), an opera based on a Breton legend (see: "Ys"), is his most accomplished and complex work. (The same legend inspired Debussy to compose his famous piano piece, La cathédrale engloutie.) The opera was rejected for 10 years after composition and was not performed until 1888, when he was 65 years old. Its success opened doors for Lalo to the end of his life. However, his imagination and the desire to compose new music were diminishing. He died in Paris at age 69, leaving several unfinished works.