UMS grew from a group of local university and townspeople who gathered together for the study of Handel's Messiah. Led by Professor Henry Frieze and conducted by Professor Calvin Cady, the group assumed the name The Choral Union. Their first performance of Handel's Messiah was in December of 1879, and this glorious oratorio has since been performed by the UMS Choral Union annually.
As a large number of Choral Union members also belonged to the University, the University Musical Society was established in December 1880. UMS included the Choral Union and University Orchestra, and throughout the year presented a series of concerts featuring local and visiting artists and ensembles.
Since that first season in 1880, UMS has expanded greatly and now presents the very best from the full spectrum of the performing arts, including internationally renowned recitalists and orchestras, dance and chamber ensembles, jazz and world music performers, and opera and theater. Through educational endeavors, commissioning of new works, youth programs, artist residencies and other collaborative projects, UMS has maintained its reputation for quality, artistic distinction and innovation. UMS now hosts approximately 75 performances and more than 100 educational events each season.
UMS owes its predecessors at UMS a great deal, for every season since 1879, UMS staff and volunteers saved five copies of each concert program and brochure, made scrapbooks of photos and reviews, and kept recordings and autographs, which built the foundation for this rich archive.