Christian Cannabich, son of the flautist and composer Martin Friedrich Cannabich, entered the Mannheim court orchestra as a 'scholar' at the age of 12 (1744) and in 1746 or 1747 was formerly appointed as a violinist.
In the autumn of 1750 the Elector Carl Theodor granted him an electoral stipend to study in Italy; he returned to Mannheim in 1757 as leader of the court orchestra following the death of Johann Stamitz.
Under Cannabich's direction the Mannheim orchestra achieved wide renown. Mozart, who liked and admired him, described Cannabich as the best music director he had ever seen.
In the 1790s musical activity at the electoral court was curtailed and Cannabich was forced to complain about cutbacks in the musical establishment, and, more seriously, about the withholding of wages, In the last year of his life, he received only a third of his annual salary and found it necessary to undertake concert tours to supplement his income.
Cannabich died on 20 January 1798 in Frankfurt am Main while visiting his son Carl.