Joseph Martin Kraus was born in the town of Miltenberg, on the Main River near Frankfurt. Kraus' family encouraged his early interest in music, and at age 12 sent him to study in the nearby city of Mannheim. They also expected him to follow the more germane pursuit of Law in the hope he would obtain a job in the German government. This he did in Mainz and Erfurt; but it was at the University of Göttingen in the 1770s that Kraus made the decisive break with a government career. At Göttingen, Kraus fell in with a literary cadre devoted to the school of "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress), a proto-Romantic faction belonging to the eighteenth century, inspired by the early works of Goethe. Kraus engaged in writing and publishing short stories representative of this literary approach.
Swedish exchange students suggested Kraus petition the court of King Gustav III in their home country. The opera-loving King had established the first Academy of music in Sweden upon his accession in 1771, but had found native talent slow to develop, and was reaching out to musicians of other nations to help improve the quality of performances at the opera house he had built. After two years of hardship in Stockholm, Kraus' 1780 opera Prosperina gained him a conductor's job with the Royal Opera House. Part of his training involved a four-year sojourn to the capitols of Europe in order to study current trends, a condition that Kraus was happy to accept.
It was during this period of travelling that Kraus composed all but one of his symphonies, upon which his posthumous reputation largely rests. It appears Kraus wrote a total of 15 symphonies; 12 are known to exist. His best known work is the Symphony in C minor, a stormy, aggressive, and vibrantly rhythmic work. Kraus' symphonies were well enough regarded in their time to achieve publication, although some editions bear the name of a better known composer and not Kraus'. At one point, Kraus journeyed to Esterháza to meet his idol, Joseph Haydn. Upon conducting Kraus' work, Haydn remarked that "the symphony (Kraus) wrote here in Vienna especially for me will be regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come."
His tour of duty ended, Kraus was now required to return to Stockholm and attend to the musical needs of the King. Gustav III was nowhere near as enamored of instrumental music as was Kraus, and Kraus was obliged to spend most of his years in Stockholm writing opera, opera inserts, incidental music, and arias. Like Haydn, Kraus found opera an uncomfortable match for his talent, but he persevered. In 1782, he was named chief conductor of the Opera and educational director of the Academy. In 1792, Gustav III was assassinated, and Kraus memorialized his patron with a Funeral Symphony and a fine setting of the Requiem Mass. Kraus himself expired in Stockholm later that same year at the age of 36.
Kraus was remarkably productive, his brief lifespan yielding over 200 works including the symphonies, five operas, concerti, chamber works, and songs. After his death, his works were forgotten, but in the last part of the twentieth century they came back with a vengeance, especially in Sweden where Kraus is regarded as the most significant figure in Swedish music in the later eighteenth century. As Kraus' international profile evolves, it may become so that, after two centuries of neglect, Haydn's prediction for this ever young composer will come to pass.