Lalo's reputation generally rests on his operatic masterpiece Le roi d'Ys (The King of Ys). With a libretto by Eduard Blau, based on the Breton legend of a lost kingdom similar to Atlantis, it was initially rejected by all the Parisian theatres. A production was finally mounted at the Opéra-Comique on 7 May 1888, seven years after the opera's completion and just four years before the composer's death. It was an enormous success and remains a fine example of grand opera. The doom-laden overture has become particularly popular in the concert hall.
Edouard Lalo was born in Lille, France, in 1823. At first encouraged by his parents, he learned to play both the violin and the cello at the Lille conservatoire. However, he was forced to leave home at 16 when his plans to persue a musical career met with serious opposition from his father. He went to Paris to attend violin classes at the Conservatoire there, and studied composition privately with Julius Schulhoff, the pianist, and Crèvecoeur, the composer. During this period he made a living as a violinist and teacher, and played in some of Berlioz's concerts. Two symphonies that he composed at this time seem to have since been destroyed. However, his main inclination seems to have been towards chamber music, then unfashionable, and in the late 1840s he published several works. His interest was rewarded when in the late 1850s heralded a revival of the form in France, partly thanks to Lalo's founding of the Armingaud Quartet in 1855, dedicated to popularising the quartets of such composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn .
After this, Lalo composed little until 1866 when a competition set up by the Théâtre-Lyrique inspired him to embark on an opera. The result, Fiesque, a grand opera in three acts, did not win the prize however, and was never performed. The score was drawn on for many of his subsequent compositions including the scherzo of the Symphony in G minor, the two Aubades for small orchestra, and the Divertissement.
It was not until the mid-1870s that Lalo was to achieve widespread acclaim. His instrumental work represented a new direction that French music was taking, a direction pursued in the same period by César Franck and Saint-Saëns . In 1874 his Violin Concerto in F major was played by Sarasate , followed by his Symphonie Espagnole (to be his most enduringly popular work outside France) in the following year. Numerous other concerts followed, as Lalo found support from the Société Nationale and a large number of performers and composers. Despite the success of these mainly orchestral pieces, Lalo still wanted to find success in the theatre and between 1875 and 1881 he worked on an opera based on a Breton legend, Le roi d'Ys. Again the theatres refused to put on his work, but this time he was given a commission by the Opéra to write a ballet. The result, completed in four months (partly thanks to Gounod who helped with the orchestration when Lalo briefly fell ill), was Namouna , and it played at the theatre in 1883. However, production problems meant that it only ran for very few performances. The music was criticised by many as being that of a symphonist or of someone imitating Wagner, but others, amongst them Debussy , praised it for its originality.
The following years found Lalo continuing to produce orchestral works, but he also continued to pursue the production of Le roi d'Ys, which was finally performed at the Opéra-Comique on 7 May 1888. It was a complete and overwhelming success, bringing the acclaim that Lalo had so longed for. The opera continues today to be the piece that Lalo is most known for in France. Lalo went on to produce two more works for the stage; the pantomime Neron and La jacquerie, of which he completed but one act before his death in 1892.