After Smetana and Dvorák, Fibich was the most prominent Czech composer of the latter 19th century and, in his search for extramusical inspiration, is often referred to as the greatest Czech Romantic composer. Unlike his illustrious colleagues, Fibich did not develop a 'Czech style' in which the rhythms and melodies of folk music influenced his compositional language, preferring instead to use folk music more overtly for specific effects (see the second movement Polka of the First Symphony).
Born on 21 December 1850, Fibich enjoyed a happy childhood in woodland surroundings (his father came from a long line of forestry officials), learning to play the piano from his mother. In 1864 he started attending the private music institute of Zikmund Kolešovský and by the time he left the following year, had written about 50 works, including his first published piano piece, Le printemps, and part of an opera.
Fibich's training continued in Leipzig, studying piano with Moscheles and theory with E F Richter at the Conservatory. He also studied privately with Salomon Jadassohn and wrote three operas during this time. After a brief stay in Paris, Fibich concluded his studies in Mannheim with the conductor Vinzenz Lachner, and returned to Bohemia in 1870. In 1873 he married Ruzena Hanušová , but when she died shortly after, he married her older sister, Betty.
From 1878 to 1881, Fibich was both deputy conductor and choirmaster of the Provisional Theatre in Prague, and choirmaster of the Russian Orthodox church. After 1881, however, he devoted himself entirely to composition and private teaching and later developed an intense passion for a composition pupil, Anezka Schulzová. She became the inspiration for many of his later works and wrote the libretti for his last three operas, Hedy, Šarka and Pád Arkuna (The Fall of Arkona).
Fibich returned to a public post only in the last year of his life, as Dramaturg for the National Theatre, but the position was abolished soon after he was given the job. Forced to return to private teaching despite failing health, Fibich died of pneumonia on 15 October 1900, less than a month before his last opera, The Fall of Arkona, had its first performance.
Fibich's greatest achievements were in the fields of opera, orchestral and piano music, and many of his works provided a creative impulse for other composers. His nationalistic symphonic poem, Záboj, Slavoj a Ludek, for example, inspired Smetana's famous cycle of symphonic poems, Má vlast. His dramatic strengths, evident in the operas, symphonic poems, and concert overtures, were complemented by a gift for miniature forms, comparable to that of Schumann. His best works are probably the trilogy of stage melodramas known as Hippodamia.