Although music seems to have been his passion all along, it was not until nearly the age of 40 that Chabrier turned to composition as his full time career. When he finally did this, he crafted works characterized by brilliance, wit, and vivid harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral coloring.
As early as age 6, Chabrier began piano lessons under the tutelage of a Spanish refugee named Saporta. At 10, he attended the Lycée Impérial at Clermont Ferrand, where he continued his keyboard studies and began to try his hand at composition. Upon the insistence of his father, however, he relegated music to be his pastime; after two years in Paris at the Lycée Louis le Grand (or the Lycée Saint Louis -- biographers disagree on which is the case), he began to study law. He continued also to take piano lessons and studied counterpoint and fugue, but when he took his law degree in 1862, he went to work for the Ministry of the Interior, where he worked for 18 years. During this time, he associated with the painter Manet and the poet Verlaine and fellow musicians including Duparc, d'Indy, Fauré, and Messager. On December 27, 1872, he married Marie Alice Dejean.
In 1879, he made his first visit to Germany in the company of Duparc; a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich so moved him that he determined to quit the law and devote his life to music. He returned to Paris, resigned from the Ministry on November 12, 1880 -- just two months before his 40th birthday -- and began to spend his days composing.
Before this monumental step, Chabrier had produced only two significant works, these being the operettas L'Étoile (1877) and Une Éducation manquée (1879); however, now freed of his routine job, he produced in short order Dix Pièces pittoresques for piano (1881), Habañera (1885), and Bourrée fantasque in 1891. His finest short work, the brilliant España Rhapsody, came forth in 1883; this piece alone established Chabrier as a composer of serious merit.
In the years 1884 and 1885 he worked as chorus master at the Château d'Eau where, among other projects, he assisted with a production of Wagner's Tristan. This close association with Wagner's music both developed his skill in orchestration and instilled in him some elements of Germanic style; in later years, these elements would appear in his own works, much to his own consternation and that of his musical compatriots in France.
Arguably Chabrier's finest work, the comic opera Le Roi malgré lui (based upon a comedy by François Ancelot) was premiered at the Opéra Comique on May 18, 1887. Still a rather old-fashioned work, in which sung portions were interspersed with stretches of dialogue, it was rebuffed by modernists; it was nonetheless considered spirited and delightfully original.
Considering his very late start and lack of substantial formal training, Chabrier must be regarded as brilliant. His music is extremely colorful, and he was particularly adept at integrating forces and resources to create a unified sound world. Not so much a dramatist as a lyricist, Chabrier seemed most comfortable writing in the realm of comedy; evidently this is an accurate reflection of his personality in general. He was a fundamental influence on Les Six, the group of young French composers who typified the emerging French nationalism in the generation following him; they took him as a model, stopping short of his later Wagnerian turn. He also heavily influenced the work of Maurice Ravel. When viewed in the context of his relatively short career, Chabrier's output indeed labels him as an overachiever.