Frederich von Flotow was born into nobility as his father was a land owner in the grand duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. He was well educated and his father wanted him to pursue a career in diplomatic service. At the age of 15, Flotow went to Paris and was quickly seduced by the artistic life of Paris at the time. He became aware of his own musical talents and in 1828 began studying at the Paris Conservatory with Antonín Reicha. One of his first works was Alessandro Stradella in 1937. Originally, this was composed as as a short lyric piece (piece lyrique) that he later rewrote into a full opera.
Le Naufrage de la Méduse in 1839 was his first successful opera. It was about the sinking of the French frigate Medusa on July 2, 1816 off the coast of Mauritania that killed 160 people. This event was also the inspiration for the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819).
In 1944 he brought Alessandro Stradella to Hamburg as a full opera and it was very successful throughout Germany. However, the work was a failure in London when performed in English and later in Italian. In 1845, he rewrote the opera Le Naufrage de la Méduse as Die Matrosen opening in Hamburg. Again, he had great success with the German audience. His most famous work, Martha, opened in 1847 in Vienna. Most of this work comes from his 1844 ballet Lady Henriette, but Martha became instantly popular and became know in opera houses around the world.
Flotow was appointed intendant of the court theatre at Schwerin in 1856. He remained in this position until 1863. In 1863, he moved back to Paris and to Vienna in 1868. He was elected corresponding member of the Institut de France in 1864.
Of his 30 or so operas, many were rewritten or put into other languages, so in his time, his music did enjoy a broad audience across Europe and beyond. Although many of Flotow's compositions survive today, a number of them have been lost over the years. The most known of his works today are his operas Alessandro Stradella and Martha.