Smetana was a child prodigy on the piano and gave his first public performance at the age of six. After his brief stint as a revolutionary in 1848 he founded the Piano Institute in Prague in 1849. He contacted Liszt for advice and assistance, and the two became friends. The Institute gave regular recitals which Smetana participated in along with the students, and Liszt attended some of these recitals. By 1856 Smetana had suffered the death of three children and his wife contracted tuberculosis. His compositions were not being received very well, and the hoped-for relaxing of the political climate didn't happen, so he moved to Sweden where he taught and composed.
He eventually was coaxed by admirers to come back and he returned to Prague in 1860 and continued to compose, concentrating on helping to establish Czech nationalistic operas. He was appointed conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague after he wrote his first two operas, one of which was his very popular opera The Bartered Bride.
Smetana was involved in controversies during his tenure as conductor, as the more conservative factions in Prague distrusted Smetana's siding with the progressive music and ideas of Wagner and Liszt. Liszt became his friend and gave Smetana advice that led to the founding of the Piano Institute in Prague. The Institute gave regular recitals which Smetana participated in along with the students, and Liszt attended some of these recitals.
After the intrigues of the opera house and the continuing politics of his enemies he was on the verge of being fired as conductor of the Provisional Theater, but due to the efforts of his backers such as Antonín Dvořák, he was reappointed as Artistic Director of the theater in 1873. The bitter controversies were contributing factors to the illness that beset him in 1874. He became totally deaf in his right ear and advised theater management that if his health did not improve he would resign. By October he was totally deaf in both ears and resigned. Smetana concentrated on composing and in 1876 wrote his first string quartet, subtitled 'From My Life'. As Smetana explained to a friend:
"I wanted to depict in music the course of my life…written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly."
The 1st String Quartet is in 4 movements with comments in italics by the composer:
I. Allegro vivo appassionato -
"1st part - The call of fate into the life struggle. Love of art in my youth, my inclination towards romanticism in love as well as music, an inexpressible yearning for something, and a warning concerning my future misfortune. The long insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me."
The first movement begins with an E minor chord, after which the violins play a steady, subdued eighth-note figure as the cello plays an extended E in the low bass. This is all in preparation for the entrance of the viola with Smetana's 'fate' motive.
II. Allegro moderato à la Polka -
"The second movement, a quasi- polka, brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance tunes and was known everywhere as a passionate lover of dancing."
III. Largo sostenuto -
"The happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife. The struggle with the unfavorable fate, the final reaching of my goal."
IV. Vivace -
"The fourth movement describes the discovery that I could treat national elements in music and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.”
After Smetana's joyous music of the first part of the finale, there is a sudden interruption as the tinnitus that began Smetana's descent into deafness is depicted by a high harmonic E played by the first violin while the other instruments play tense tremolos. The music becomes melancholy as the fate motive heard in the first movement comes back. The music itself slowly goes silent as the movement ends with silence, a poignant representation of Smetana's deafness.
Smetana composed for a few more years until his mind experienced a descent of its own into madness. His family nursed him as long as possible, but he was confined to a lunatic asylum after he became violent and incoherent and died there a few months later in 1884. There is still controversy about the cause of death, but the evidence points strongly to end - stage syphilis .