While Smetana was completing Má vlast, he embarked on the first of a pair of string quartets. Inverting the extrovert sentiment of his popular orchestral poems, as well as his ever-present operas, ‘Z mého zivota’ (‘From my life’) is a markedly intimate work, ‘purposely written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly’. But given that Ludevít Procházka’s Czech-German Chamber Music Society prompted Smetana to write the quartet, the composer would have known from the outset that his private thoughts would soon be heard in public. Writing to another friend, the musicologist Josef Srb-Debrnov, Smetana detailed what he hoped to achieve:
My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings towards art, a Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune. The long persistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears, which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I allow myself this small joke, though [my loss of hearing] was ultimately disastrous.
The second movement, a quasi-polka, recalls the joyful days of my youth when I composed dance tunes and was widely known as a passionate lover of dancing.
The third movement (the one which, in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, is unperformable) reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife [and whom Smetana sadly lost to tuberculosis].
The fourth movement describes my discovery that I could incorporate national elements in my music and my joy in following this path until it was terminated by the onset of my deafness, the outlook into a sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery; but remembering the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.