It was founded by Romain Bussine and Camille Saint-Saëns, who shared the presidency, and early members included César Franck, Ernest Guiraud, Jules Massenet, Jules Garcin, Gabriel Fauré, Alexis de Castillon, Henri Duparc, Théodore Dubois, and Paul Taffanel. It was conceived in reaction to the tendency in French music to favor vocal and operatic music over orchestral music, and to further the cause of French music in contrast to the Germanic tradition.
The first concert took place on November 17, 1871 and featured the Trio in B flat major by Franck, two melodies by Dubois, Five Pieces in Ancient Style by Castillon, a reduction of the Violin Concerto by Garcin, an Improvisation for tenor by Massenet, and the Caprice héroïque for two pianos by Saint-Saëns.
The concerts took place in the Salons Pleyel, the Salle Érard for orchestral concerts, and the Church of Saint-Gervais for works with organ. Although the society had limited means, it was able to hire first-rate performers such as Sarasate, Eugène Ysaÿe, and Wanda Landowska.
In the 1880s, the society first began accepting manuscripts by non-French composers. Ernest Chausson served as secretary from 1883 until his death. Towards the end of that decade, it accepted a number of composers of the rising generation, among them Debussy and Ravel.
In 1886, the society had a confrontational split over the issue of promoting foreign music, with the conservative Saint-Saëns facing off against Franck, Vincent d'Indy, and others. Franck was elected president, and both Bussine and Saint-Saëns resigned. With the 1890 death of Franck, d'Indy became president. After several hostile incidents, Ravel left the society and founded a new society called the Société de Musique Indépendente. Competition between the two societies and lack of new manuscripts led to a reduction in the activity of the society until the 1930s, when the induction of new members such as Olivier Messiaen breathed new life into it.