A dominant figure in nineteenth century French opera, Auber was born to a royal huntsman in the Normandy region.
Auber demonstrated facility at the keyboard as a child, and by 1799 he had produced a string quartet that demonstrated his awareness of emerging Romantic styles. Auber's first one-act stage work, Julie, reached the stage in an amateur performance in 1805; in 1811, Italian composer Luigi Cherubini saw a revised version and agreed to take Auber under his wing. A string of failures led Auber to abandon composition around 1813, but in 1819, Auber's father died bankrupt, and Auber turned back to composition as means of self-preservation. The following year, Auber enjoyed his first hit, Le bergère châtelaine.
In 1823, Auber met playwright Eugène Scribe, and their joint reign may be compared with that of Gilbert and Sullivan in England. Their first major hit, Le Maçon, appeared in 1825, and with it began "the golden age of the Opéra comique." In 1828, Auber and Scribe fulfilled a commission from the Académie Royale de Musique with La muette de portici, known in English-speaking lands as Masaniello. This grand opera, dealing with a seventeenth century Neapolitan revolt, was so effective that it provided a catalyst for a successful Belgian insurrection against Dutch occupation in 1830. That year, Auber and Scribe introduced Fra Diavolo, with its comic tale of banditry; this touched off an entire subgenre of comic bandit operas. In 1833, the partnership launched another grand opera, Gustave III; an Italian translation of Scribe's libretto later served as the basis for Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Le Domino Noir of 1837 was the Auber/Scribe work most frequently revived in its own century, achieving 1,209 performances by 1909.
In 1842, Auber was named head of the Paris Conservatoire. He helped to build up this institution considerably over his 30-year tenure, enlarging the composition, piano, and orchestral instrument departments. In 1861, Scribe died, and Auber produced only two more operas afterward. The second of these, Rêve d'amour, was his final hit, produced in 1869 when Auber was 87 years old. In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and Auber resigned from his post at the Conservatoire so that its building might be converted into a hospital. The aged composer did not long survive the horrors and privations of the Paris Commune, and died at age 89 in the midst of the German occupation.
For the next four decades, several of Auber's operas held the stage in Paris and elsewhere. Even early phonograph records testify to his tremendous popularity; witness Ellen Beach Yaw's recording of "C'est l'histoire amoureuse" (Manon Lescaut), made for the Gramophone & Typewriter company in London in 1898. By 1910, however, Auber's work was dropping from even the French repertory, with only Fra Diavolo keeping a tenuous hold. Changing times and tastes led to the neglect of Auber's music, with the exception of some of his overtures, in particular that for Les Diamants de la couronne (The Crown Jewels). Rossini accurately evaluated Auber's compositions as "little music, but by a great musician" Auber was the recipient of praise from kings, emperors, and eminent men of learning, and five biographies of him appeared during his own lifetime.