Bedřich Smetana lost his hearing in the autumn of 1874 and had to resign his conducting post at the Provisional Theatre. After failed attempts to cure his affliction, he had come to terms sufficiently with his fate that he was able to create works of key importance over the next ten years of his life. In 1876, Smetana composed his String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, subtitled “From My Life”. That June, he had moved to Jabkenice to live with the family of his daughter Žofie, and in July he finished the opera The Kiss, which was premiered successfully at the Provisional Theatre on 7 November. The quartet’s completion is dated 29 December. At first, the composition did not meet with comprehension because of its supposedly excessively “orchestral” character. In a letter dated 1878 to his friend Josef Srb-Debrnov, Smetana wrote that he would leave the judgement of the composition’s style up to others; he had no intention of writing “a quartet in accordance with the formula and practice of usual forms” because (as is the case with his other compositions) “the work itself creates the form”. Smetana’s conception for the handling of four string instruments further advanced the development of the chamber music genre.
Initially, the Society for the Cultivation of Chamber Music turned the quartet down, so Smetana had to wait three years for the work’s first public performance on 29 March 1879 at a concert of the Artists’ Society in the hall of the Prague historical building Konvikt. The performers were Ferdinand Lachner and members of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre Jan Pelikán, Josef Krehan, and Alois Neruda. “Like in all of the genres in which Smetana has so far created, in the field of chamber music he is again a completely new, original, and Czech composer, taking the modern stance of creating music on the basis of a poetic idea,” wrote the journal Dalibor. The work’s autobiographical aspect in the background is clear, the composer himself having informed us about it. The first movement expresses a natural inclination toward the arts, a romantic mood with longing, and a premonition of future misfortune. The second movement, a polka, is a remembrance youth, and the middle part is a “reminiscence of the aristocratic circles in which I was living for many years,” wrote Smetana. The third movement recalls Smetana’s love for Kateřina Kolářová, who later became his wife. The final movement describes “discovering the nature of the national element in music”. The music reaches a breaking point, the catastrophe of deafness, announced persistently by a high “E” two octaves above the treble-clef staff. The Bohemian Quartet promoted the work abroad, followed by other ensembles.
The version of the work for wind quintet is not the quartet’s only arrangement. Its musical material and character also inspired the conductor and occasional composer George Szell (1897–1970), who spent several years in Prague conducting at the New German Theatre. In American emigration, he created a fine, sensitive orchestral arrangement of the quartet “From My Life” as a personal reminiscence of Europe, and he performed it on 8 March 1941 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York.