In February 1898 the Oxford Ladies’ Musical Society was founded. Groups such as the Oxford University Musical Club already existed, but in those days they were open only to men. The aim of the OLMS was to provide a musical offering for women and their guests through a series of concerts (initially four musical evenings per term) involving local musicians, often of outstanding ability. Having attracted over 100 lady subscribers at its inaugural meeting, the Society presented its first concert at 115 High Street just two weeks later: a mix of instrumental ensembles, songs and solos.
From this encouraging start, and infused with the spirit of its founding committee, the OLMS grew and flourished, soon extending beyond its original concept and attracting artists of great distinction. Even though its opening concert was given by an all-female cast, gentlemen were allowed to attend as guests, and it was not long before celebrated male musicians were playing for the Society. Among them were Hans Wessely and John Kruse (formerly violinist in Joachim’s quartet), Percy Grainger, Lionel Tertis, Adolf Busch, and Frank Bridge.
Unavoidably, the Society suffered periods of financial uncertainty during and after the two world wars. But somehow it survived, and survived well: in the early 1920s, concert listings included artists of rare distinction: Solomon, Myra Hess, Leon Goossens, Segovia, the Busch Quartet, and the Griller Quartet.
The economic depression of the 1930s saw a fall in subscription numbers. But the Society has always been sustained by the generosity of its members. In the 1940s the Deneke sisters hosted OLMS concerts at their house in Norham Gardens – an arrangement which continued for the best part of thirty years. Concerts remained excellent and any financial shortfall was made up through the personal gift of Margaret Deneke, enabling the Society to thrive against the odds.
The same is true of other benefactors, one of whom set up a substantial Trust Fund in 1968 which has enabled the Society to continue in confidence to this day. Also in 1968 it was agreed that the OLMS should change its name and become The Oxford Chamber Music Society. In 1969 the number of termly concerts moved from four to three and, later, settled on a six-concert winter season.
Having held its concerts at various locations over the years the OCMS returned in 1987 to the Holywell Music Room (where it had been from 1915 to 1940). The story of the Oxford Chamber Music Society is one of evolution from seeds sown by that creative, dedicated committee of ladies in 1898 and supported through thick and thin by huge personal loyalty and generosity. It retains the purposes of its founders; it enables Oxford audiences to relish outstanding performances of chamber music. Floreat!