Edouard Judas Colonne's family was musical; his father and grandfather were both professional musicians. He studied practically every instrument. His primary violin teacher as a child was Baudouin. In 1855 Edouard went to the Paris Conservatoire, where his violin teachers were Sauzy and Gerard. His composition and theory teachers were Edward and Thomas. In 1858 he won the first prize for harmony and in 1863 another first prize, for violin.
He supported himself by playing in the orchestra of the Theatre-Lyrique. In 1858 he became concertmaster of the Opera Orchestra. He also joined the Lamoureux Quartet as second violinist to Charles Lamoureux, a slightly older violinist who also went on to be a leading conductor on the French scene.
He also joined the orchestra of Jules Pasdeloup, and started doing some conducting. But he accepted a job as concertmaster at a comic opera company that had been founded in New York by James Fisk. He remained in New York when the company folded, and led the Niblo's Garden Orchestra.
In 1871 he returned to Paris and conducted a hotel orchestra. In 1873, following France's national humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War, Colonne obtained the financial backing of the publishing house of Hartmann to found an Orchestre National. The orchestra had superior quality from the beginning. Its life began with the world premiere of César Franck's symphonic poem Redemption. Colonne was evidently not too experienced as a conductor at that point. His choral director, Vincent d'Indy violently attacked the quality of the leadership and the lack of balance between orchestra and voices.
The orchestra lasted two years before Hartmann's withdrew its support. Undaunted, Colonne immediately founded a successor organization, the Concerts de Châtelet, which was later renamed the Association Artistique des Concerts Colonne. Colonne distinguished himself from his main competition, Pasdeloup, who also had founded an orchestra, by concentrating on French music from Berlioz to date. After Pasdeloup faded from the scene, his main competition was Lamoureux. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had works premiered by both rivals, once summed up their difference: "Lamoureux is more precise; he is colder. Colonne is more elastic, more inspired."
Colonne achieved his results by pushing his players mercilessly, and by all accounts had a nasty personality where his musicians (who was also his direct employees) were concerned. But his orchestra and the artistic results were successful. He made a specialty of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, which he performed 172 times before World War II. He toured with his orchestra in Portugal, Spain, England, Germany, and Russia. In addition, he frequently conducted the orchestra at the Odeon Theater, and in 1892 became artistic adviser and conductor of the Paris Opera. In 1907 he became one of the first important conductors to record orchestral music, using a stripped-down orchestra to accommodate the limitations of acoustic horn recording.