He started his education in Buchen am Odenwald, later at the Jesuit Gymnasium and Music Seminar at Mannheim, then proceeded to study law in Mainz, Erfurt, where he was taught by Peter Weimar and C.P.E. Bach, and Göttingen, where he was part of the writer's group Göttingen Hainbund and wrote a book of poetry, Versuch von Schäfersgedichte, a tragedy, Tolon, as well as music, including the oratorios Die Geburt Jesu and Der Tod Jesu, and a musical treatise.
At the Swedish Court
In 1778 Kraus moved to Stockholm, Sweden, on the suggestion of his friend Carl Stridsberg. His financial situation there was bad at first. His opera Azire was rejected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, but the Academy decided to give him a second chance. King Gustav III of Sweden himself drafted the opera libretto Proserpina and Johan Kellgren versified it. Kraus's music to this libretto was successfully premiered at Ulriksdal Palace. In 1781 Kraus was appointed a conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera and director of the Royal Academy of Music.
Gustavus III sent Kraus on a 5-year Grand Tour of Europe to learn all he could about music abroad. On this trip, Kraus met Christoph Willibald Gluck and Joseph Haydn, for whom he wrote a Symphony in D major, VB 143 for Haydn to play at Esterhaza, and it was first published under Haydn's name. Kraus's Symphony in E minor, VB 141 was first published in Paris in 1787, under the name of Giuseppe Cambini, a very popular composer at the time. During this time, Kraus became a member of the same masonic lodge as Mozart.
A lot of Kraus's symphonies have been lost, or attributed to other composers. Only about a dozen remain of which scholars are certain of Kraus's authorship. Most of Kraus's extant symphonies are in three movements, without a Minuet. Most are scored for two horns and strings, many include two flutes and two oboes, while the later ones also include two bassoons, and two additional horns. The musicologist Bertil van Boer identifies Kraus's Symphony in C# minor as "one of only two symphonies in this key written during the eighteenth century." It was later reworked in a more 'manageable' key as Symphony in C minor, VB 142.
When Kraus returned from his Grand Tour, he was appointed Kapellmästare in Gustavus III's court, and became involved in the Palmstedt writer's group. For the convening of the Riksdag of the Estates in 1789, Gustavus III wanted to convince the legislature to go along with his plans of going to war with Russia, where he was opposed by the landed gentry but supported by the burgesses and peasants. The king had Kraus write Riksdagsmusiken for this occasion, consisting of a march based on the March of the Priests from Mozart's Idomeneo, and a symphony. The legislature approved the king's measures. That year Kraus also gave the Swedish premiere of a Mozart symphony.
Bertil van Boer divides Kraus's sacred music into two periods. The first, from 1768 to 1777, comprises Kraus's music written as a Roman Catholic for Catholic services. For the second, from 1778 to 1790, Kraus was still Catholic, but wrote music for Lutheran services. Aside from short hymns and chorales, there was not much use for sacred music in Sweden at that time. There was also a debate going on regarding the role music should play in the church, and Kraus participated in that debate by writing three articles on the subject in the newspaper Stockholms Post.
For the staging in January 1792 of Voltaire's Olympie, Kraus wrote an overture, a march and interludes. On March 1792, Gustavus III attended a masked ball where he was assassinated, and he died shortly after. (Giuseppe Verdi started to write an opera on this event, Gustavus Terzo, but later changed the names of the characters, the setting, and the title of the opera, to Un Ballo in Maschera). Kraus wrote a funeral cantata and the Symphonie funèbre which were played at the burial ceremony on April 13. Kraus himself died a few months later, on December 15, 1792, of tuberculosis.
Two different catalogs exist of Kraus's music, one by Karl Scheiber, Verzeichnis der Musikalischen Werke von Jos. Kraus, which gives each composition an A number, and Bertil van Boer's Die Werke von Joseph Martin Kraus: Systematisch-thematisches Werkverzeichnis, which gives each composition a VB number. Bertil van Boer also edited modern editions, on Artaria, of all Kraus's symphonies recorded on Volume 4 of Naxos's complete set of Kraus symphonies, and also wrote the programme notes for those discs as well as the article on Kraus in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 1 won the Cannes Classical Award in 1999, while Volume 2 contains world premiere recordings of three of Kraus's symphonies.