David was a prodigy, and soon began composing his first works, mostly vocal efforts such as hymns and motets. After a period of study at St. Louis College in Aix-en-Provence from 1825-28, he served briefly as a conductor and law clerk before becoming the chapel master at St. Sauveur for a year. Some of his earliest surviving works--motets and choruses--date to this period (1828-30).
In 1830 David traveled to Paris where he joined the social and philosophical sect, the Saint-Simonians. After the government outlawed the group, David traveled with some of its members to Jerusalem, Egypt, and other locations in the Middle East, locations whose culture and music would influence his musical persona.
David returned to Paris in 1836 and based his activities there or in its vicinity for the remainder of his career. In 1844 he completed the aforementioned Le desert (for soloists, chorus, speaker and orchestra), which was an overnight success. His 1851 opera La perle du Brésil was also greeted enthusiastically. By this time David was regarded among the foremost composers in Europe.
After the success of his opera Lalla-Roukh (1862), regarded by many as the composer's greatest work, David received a series of citations and prizes, including Officier de la Légion d'honneur, in 1862. He remained a religious man throughout his life (hence the many religious vocal works in his output) and remained true to the Saint-Simonians. While he remained active as a composer in the 1870s, his output declined sharply. David died in Saint Germain-en-Laye, France, on August 29, 1876.