“It may... strike you as presumptuous to think of starting a Music Society which has no intention of furnishing any but the best music, nor of inviting ‘stars’ to perform at their concerts. The promoters of the scheme however indulge the hope that there are in Oxford those whose love for music is earnest and real, and to whom it would be a pleasure to hear good music well played by performers who are thoroughly competent, although their reputation is not yet world-wide.”

It was with this hope in 1898 that the Oxford Ladies’ Musical Society began, a space for women to appreciate music such as was denied them by the men-only Oxford University Musical Club. The eloquent founder-member Mrs Ghetal Burdon-Sanderson’s desire to see “thoroughly competent” musicians perform under its auspices was realised soon enough, and the society goes from strength to strength today – having enjoyed a change of name in 1968 to the rather more inclusive Oxford Chamber Music Society. Mere competence, however thorough, was soon less than was achieved, and the roster of artists performing for the Oxford Ladies soon became seriously impressive – famous performers from their early history included the pianist, composer and writer Donald Francis Tovey in 1908, and British piano legend Solomon (aged just 20) in 1922. Concert life may have changed rather – their rule banning “girls with their hair down” from attendance has long evaporated – but a commitment to high-quality musical performance has always stayed securely on the agenda.

The Oxford Chamber Music Society may have a particularly rich history, but it is not alone. A large number of similar clubs and societies sprang up around the UK at about the same time, and thanks to the often extreme commitment of members and organisers, many remain active today. HHH Concerts in Haslemere, Surrey, dates from 1934, and is another society with a distinguished archive of performers to its name. Its history has been diligently researched and documented by former chairman Jane fforde, and the picture which emerges is of a gradual move from private concerts for society members and guests only, held in members’ own houses, to a slightly more commercial venture – though still one which takes pride in a sense of community among attendees. Current Artistic Director Anna Hill tells me that it’s about “meeting friends as well as listening to music” – it’s a story common to many such societies. Pianist Llŷr Williams is just one of a range of excellent performers visiting this season.

Chamber music societies, or clubs, or whatever they’re called, are perhaps particularly important to places outside the major cities, where large-scale classical music is harder to come by – although this isn’t to say that such places lack classical music pedigree. Malvern Concert Club, for instance, was founded in 1903 by none other than local resident Edward Elgar. Though it was a rule of this club from the start that members would not perform themselves (that’s why it was a “club”, rather than a “society”) – and though Elgar appears to have had his own music performed on only the odd occasion – the esteemed composer’s address book was surely a factor in drawing such an impressive line-up of stars to Worcestershire from so early on: the Bohemian Quartet with second violinist Josef Suk (now remembered more as a composer) were early performers, as was pianist Ferrucio Busoni. They’ve all been there over the years since, too, from the Amadeus Quartet a couple of times to Joshua Bell – even that other local boy Nigel Kennedy, in his youth.

Michael Messenger, Club Archivist and former Chairman (and author of the book Elgar's Legacy on the history of the club), gives me the remarkable statistic that Malvern Concert Club has had only “five and a half” secretaries over its entire 109-year history. It ran unbroken through both world wars and continues to draw the top performers today. They’re branching out as well into commissioning: their third-ever commission will take place in May 2013, and consolidates the club’s pride in its location: Worcestershire composer Ian Venables’ The Song of the Severn will be a celebration of local poets.

All of this success isn’t to say that running a chamber music club in the 21st century is an easy thing to do, however, and one frequent concern is how to draw a younger crowd. Graham Merriam of Sowerby Music in North Yorkshire has tried various methods to engage a younger audience, but the area’s very successful Music for Life scheme – which provides primary-school-age children with workshops and events from a team of enthusiastic professional musicians, independently to the local council – remains somewhat detached from his series of concerts. It’s not always easy, after all, to find a programme which will appeal to all ages or tastes: Graham speaks interestingly of the perils of programming a song recital, which the audience are less likely to enjoy, and the comparative safety of hiring instrumental groups.

A key idea of Graham’s is engaging his audience in the concert, and he’s looking forward to The Songmen’s visit this year as they’re also running a community workshop, the result of which will be sung as part of their recital. Whether it’s through participation ideas such as this or through hiring two string quartets for a concert rather than one (the Sacconi and Benyounes Quartets are joining forces for the Mendelssohn Octet in November), he is adamant that in concert planning, “There’s got to be a twist”. And twists have come aplenty over Bromsgrove Concerts’ 49-year history as well, through a long and impressive history of commissions: they have commissioned and had performed works by the likes of Howard Skempton, Sally Beamish and Philip Cashian. Their upcoming 50th anniversary season has a slightly more traditional bent, but with an outstanding series of artists it’s still well worth a look.

It isn’t only the more rural locations around the country which benefit from active chamber music societies, by any means: despite the large amounts of orchestral music going on around Bournemouth, for instance, it is down to the Bournemouth Chamber Music Society to provide top-quality chamber music to the area – which they are doing in abundance this season, with performers of the calibre of Peter Donohoe and the Schubert Ensemble. Like Sowerby Music, they also have a flourishing youth music scheme, intent on bringing the joys of chamber music to new generations.

And what’s more, it certainly isn’t just within the UK that chamber music societies flourish. Particularly notable in the US is Chamber Music San Francisco, which runs an ambitious series of concerts in three separate cities – San Francisco, Palo Alto and Walnut Creek. We’ve also got events in Bachtrack for US societies in San Jose, South Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, all of which attract top performers galore.

Mrs Burdon-Sanderson, it seems, was too modest in her aims: chamber music societies do more than provide enthusiasts with “thoroughly competent” music-making. They have come to be a hugely important element in the cultural life of countless towns and cities, proving that high quality classical music is not just for the biggest venues.

Paul Kilbey 31 July 2012

1G.K. Woodgate, The Oxford Chamber Music Society: A Brief History (Information Press, 2007), p.6.