Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) is one of the few composers of the eighteenth century to have been considered by both Joseph Haydn and Christoph Willibald von Gluck to be an original genius. He was a talented composer, a prolific correspondent, and a published author who during his youth produced a volume of poetry, a tragedy (Tolon), and one of the few music aesthetical treatises that can be associated with the literary Sturm und Drang movement.
The son of a regional civil servant, Kraus received his earliest education from the local schools in Buchen, a small town on the fringes of the Odenwald in central Germany.
At the age of twelve he was sent to the Jesuit Gymnsium and Music Seminar in Mannheim, where he received instruction in German literature from Anton Klein, the librettist of the first major German opera, Ignaz Holzbauer’s Günther von Schwarzburg, and in music from members of the famous Mannheim court orchestra. Following university studies in philosophy and law at Mainz and Erfurt, he was forced to remain for a year in his home in Buchen while his father underwent prosecution for misuse of office. During this period he began to concentrate his efforts in the fields of literature and music. In 1776 he returned to school in law at the University of Göttingen, where he came into contact with the remnants of the famous Sturm und Drang literary group, the Hainbund.
After two years of study there, he accepted a proposition to travel to Sweden in order to focus his career on music at the court of Gustav III. He spent two years of relative hardship attempting to break into the Stockholm musical establishment. A commission for an opera, Proserpin, whose text was drafted by the King himself, won him the post as Deputy Musical Director in 1781. The following year he was sent on a grand tour by Gustav in order to observe the latest trends in music theatre in continental Europe. This lasted four years and brought him into contact with major figures such as Haydn, Gluck, Antonio Salieri, Padre Martini, and others. He published his first set of works, six string quartets as his Op. 1, with Hummel and associated himself with the Viennese firm of Johann Traeg, who disseminated his works in copy form throughout the continent. His journey also took him throughout Germany, Italy, France, and England, where he witnessed the Handel Centenary celebrations in 1785.
While in Paris, he experienced difficulty with cabals back in Stockholm that sought to prevent his return, but their resolution in 1786 made it possible for him to become the leading figure in Gustavian musical life. In 1787 he was appointed as director of curriculum at the Royal Academy of Music, and the next year he succeeded Francesco Antonio Uttini as Kapellmästare, eventually attaining a reputation as an innovative conductor, progressive pedagogue, and multi-talented composer. He began publishing regularly with the new publishing firm in Stockholm, Olof Åhlström’s Kongliga Priviligierade Not-Tryckeriet, and was a member of the Palmstedt literary circle, a group that discussed intellectual and cultural life in the Swedish capital.
Although he was a much sought after composer for stage music, his principal opera, Æneas i Cartago, remained unperformed during his lifetime. In January of 1792 he was present at the masked ball wherein his patron, Gustav III, was assassinated, causing considerable turmoil in the cultural establishment that the monarch had nurtured. His own health deteriorated shortly thereafter, and he died only a few months later in December of 1792 from tuberculosis. He was buried in the Stockholm suburb of Tivoli following a ceremony where his coffin was carried across the ice of the Brunsviken by torchlight.