Johann Christian Innocenz Bonaventura Cannabich, son of the flautist and composer Martin Friedrich Cannabich, was born in Mannheim in 1731. A pupil of Johann Stamitz, Christian 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. The Elector Carl Theodor granted him an electoral stipend to study in Italy and in the autumn of 1750 he began a course of tuition with Jommelli in Rome where he remained until 1753. He is known to have accompanied Jommelli to Stuttgart but returned to Italy in 1754 where he remained until his appointment as leader of the Mannheim court orchestra following the death of Stamitz in 1757. In 1759 he married Maria Elisabeth de la Motte, lady of the bedchamber to the Duchess of Zweibrücken, and through his Zweibrücken family connections was able to encourage Duke Christian IV to use his influence to promote the works of Mannheim composers in the French capital. Cannabich accompanied the Duke to Paris in 1764 and lived at his Parisian palace. In 1766 he was in Paris again where he obtained a privilege to print six symphonies and six trios and met Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart. After 1766, most of Cannabich's works were issued by Parisian publishers. In a later visit (1772) he appeared as a soloist at the Concert Spirituel and won a medal in a prestigious composition competition.

In 1774 Cannabich formally succeeded to Stamitz's position as director of instrumental music, thereby becoming sole conductor and trainer of the most celebrated orchestra in Europe. The next four years, until the court moved to Munich, was a time of great success and renown for the composer. His house was always open to visiting artists and he had contact with numerous musicians among whom was Mozart who reported in a letter to his father "I cannot tell you what a good friend Cannabich is to me". Mozart lived for a time in the Cannabich household and gave almost daily keyboard lessons to the Cannabich's daughter, Rosa, for whom he composed the Sonata in C, K.309.

In the 1790s musical activity at the electoral court was curtailed and Cannabich, like his colleagues Toeschi and Fraenzl, were forced to complain about cutbacks in the musical establishment, and, more seriously, about the withholding of wages, In the last year of his life, Cannabich received only a third of his annual salary and found it necessary to undertake concert tours to supplement his income. He died on 20 January 1798 in Frankfurt am Main while visiting his son Carl.

Although Cannabich's fame today lies principally in his role as director of the famous Mannheim court orchestra, he was a prolific and successful composer whose works were admired in equal measure in both Mannheim and Paris. From around 1758, when he returned from Milan, he began a collaboration with the newly-appointed court ballet-master Etienne Lauchery which brought about a flowering of dramatic ballet in Mannheim and Schwetzingen (the summer palace of the Elector Palatine). Dr Charles Burney gave the highest praise to Cannabich's La foire de village hessoise which he saw at Schwetzingen in 1772 and it has been asserted by Roland Wüertz and others that ballet was probably the ideal medium for Cannabich's compositional style. His symphonies, however, have attracted less enthusiastic praise and are perhaps all too often guilty of falling into what Leopold Mozart considered 'the affected Mannheim taste'. Wolfgang also criticised the fact that they all begin alike: in unison with long note values and large leaps (letter of 20 November 1777) although he also drew attention to the elegant instrumentation heard in more recent works. In spite of his professional reservations about Cannabich's style, Mozart took care to employ a good number of the older composer's stock devices in a number of works written around this time, notably the Paris Symphony and the later Sinfonia Concertante, K.364. The aesthetician Schubart described Cannabich as "a thinker, a diligent, refined man, but no genius". Mozart liked and admired him immensely, observing that 'Cannabich, who is the best director that I have ever seen, has the love and awe of those under him' (letter of 9 July 1778).