Smetana was born in Litomysl, the son of a brewer. He studied piano and violin from a young age, and played in the amateur string quartet that other members of his family were in. He studied music in Prague, despite initial resistance from his father. He secured a post as music master to a noble family, and in 1848 received funds from Franz Liszt to establish his own music school.
In 1856, Smetana went to Gothenburg in Sweden, where he taught, conducted and gave chamber music recitals. In 1863, back in Prague, he opened another school of music, this one dedicated to promoting a specifically Czech music. In 1874, syphilis caused him to become deaf, but he continued to compose, with Ma Vlast being written largely after this event. His first string quartet, From My Life, is an autobiographical work, which mimics the tinnitus he suffered from while deaf.
Smetana is noted as being the first composer to write music that was specifically Czech in character. Many of his operas are on Czech themes, with the best known being the comedy, The Bartered Bride (1866). He used many Czech dance rhythms and his melodies sometimes resemble folk songs. He was a great influence on Antonin Dvorak, who similarly used Czech themes in his works.