Smetana was naturally gifted as a pianist, and gave his first public performance at the age of six. After his conventional schooling, he studied music under Josef Proksch in Prague. His first nationalistic music was written during the 1848 Prague uprising, in which he briefly participated. After failing to establish his career in Prague, he left for Sweden, where he set up as a teacher and choirmaster in Gothenburg, and began to write large-scale orchestral works. During this period of his life Smetana was twice married; of six daughters, three died in infancy.
In the early 1860s, a more liberal political climate in Bohemia encouraged Smetana to return permanently to Prague. He threw himself into the musical life of the city, primarily as a champion of the new genre of Czech opera. In 1866 his first two operas, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride, were premiered at Prague's new Provisional Theatre, the latter achieving great popularity. In that same year, Smetana became the theatre's principal conductor, but the years of his conductorship were marked by controversy. Factions within the city's musical establishment considered his identification with the progressive ideas of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner inimical to the development of a distinctively Czech opera style. This opposition interfered with his creative work, and may have hastened the health breakdown which precipitated his resignation from the theatre in 1874.
By the end of 1874, Smetana had become completely deaf but, freed from his theatre duties and the related controversies, he began a period of sustained composition that continued for almost the rest of his life. His contributions to Czech music were increasingly recognised and honoured, but a mental collapse early in 1884 led to his incarceration in an asylum, and his subsequent death. Smetana's reputation as the founding father of Czech music has endured in his native country, where advocates have raised his status above that of his contemporaries and successors. However, relatively few of Smetana's works are in the international repertory, and most foreign commentators tend to regard Antonín Dvořák as a more significant Czech composer.