Brought up in Dijon, Marie François Maurice Emmanuel became a chorister at Beaune cathedral after his family moved to the city in 1869. Subsequently he went to Paris, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his composition teacher was Léo Delibes. At the Conservatoire he came to know Claude Debussy who was also a pupil there. In addition, he attended the Conservatoire classes of César Franck, about whom he wrote a short book in 1930 (César Franck: Etude Critique).
Emmanuel pursued a notable academic career. He wrote a treatise in 1895 on the music of Ancient Greece, and was appointed professor of the history of music at the Conservatoire in 1909. His students included Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux. Emmanuel's interests included folksong, Oriental music, and exotic modes — his use of these modes in various of his works had appalled Delibes, who had vetoed his entering for the Prix de Rome. Other appointments included choirmaster at the church of Sainte-Clotilde from 1904 to 1907, assisted by Émile Poillot, during the tenure of organist Charles Tournemire.
The compositions of Emmanuel, seldom heard today even in France, include operas after Aeschylus (Prométhée enchaîné and Salamine) as well as symphonies and string quartets. Probably the creations of his most often performed now are his six sonatines for solo piano, which (like many of his other pieces) demonstrate his eclectic academic interests. The first of the sonatines draws on the music of Burgundy, while the second incorporates birdsong, the third uses a Burgundian folk tune in its finale, and the fourth is subtitled en divers modes hindous ("in various Hindu modes").
- Complete Songs - Odelettes anacréontiques op. 13; Musiques op. 17; Vocalise-étude op. 24; In memoriam op. 11. Florence Katz, Marie Christine Girod, Timpani (record label), 1995
- Songs of Burgundy - orchestral songs. Florence Katz, Jean-Pierre Quénaudon, Laure Rivierre (piano), Choeur de Bourgogne, cond. Roger Toulet Marco Polo (record label), 1995
- Malcolm MacDonald, notes for recording Continuum CCD 1048, Maurice Emmanuel Six Sonatines, Peter Jacobs (piano).
- Maurice Emmanuel, compositeur français, ed. Sylvie Douche. Praha: Bärenreiter, 2007 Paris: Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2007. ISBN 978-80-86385-34-1
- Christophe Corbier, Maurice Emmanuel, bleu nuit éditeur, Paris 2007. ISBN 978-2-913575-79-0
- Maurice Emmanuel at Musicologie.org (French)
- Free scores by Maurice Emmanuel at the International Music Score Library Project