A stipend from the duke allowed Benda to take a study trip to Italy in 1764. He returned to Gotha in 1766, and devoted himself to composition. In all, he wrote about ten operas, several operettas, and the melodramasAriadne auf Naxos, Medea and Almansor und Nadine. In 1778 he resigned his position and visited Hamburg, Vienna, and other cities, and finally settled at the little hamlet of Köstritz.
Benda's most important contribution lies in the development of the German melodramas, a form of musical stage entertainment which influenced Mozart. In 1774, the Swiss-born director Abel Seyler's theatrical company arrived in Gotha, and Seyler commissioned Benda to write several successful melodramas, including Ariadne auf Naxos, Medea and Pygmalion. Ariadne auf Naxos is generally considered his best work. At its debut in 1775, the opera received enthusiastic reviews in Germany and afterwards, in the whole of Europe, with music critics calling attention to its originality, sweetness, and ingenious execution. Besides that he wrote many instrumental pieces including symphonies and a few sonatinas.
Benda died in Köstritz, in Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, at the age of 73, leaving his son, Friedrich Ludwig Benda (1752–1796), who briefly carried on the family musical tradition, serving as a music director in Hamburg and later in Mecklenburg, before finally becoming the concertmaster in Königsberg. He died less than a year after his father.