It was during the 1870s and 1880s that American music publishers began regularly publishing music for orchestra and band. This music was published in the form of parts, not scores; it was music for use, not for study. The conductor (if there was one) was expected to conduct from a principal part--violin or piano for orchestra, usually E-flat cornet for band--that had other important instrumental cues entered into it. A very few scores were published during this period; among them are the scores for H. H. Hogson's "Memories of Home Waltz" and Gustave Bach's "Night Song" for string orchestra.
Most orchestra music in this online collection is for what was called "theater orchestra" or "hotel orchestra," a small orchestra, usually one instrument to a part, with piano serving to fill out the sound. Repertoire tended to be practical: dances, medleys, serenades, marches, medley overtures. American composers in this genre tended to be specialists in light music: George Schleiffarth (pseudonymously George Maywood), E. N. Catlin, O. F. Berdan. There are also orchestrations to accompany singers that were prepared for vaudeville and minstrel performers. These are without a voice part: they can be used in conjunction with vocal sheet music to reconstruct the exact sounds that might have been heard in a vaudeville or minstrel performance of the period. There are also a few publications of melodramatic music to be used as background for plays.
The few sets of parts for full orchestra consist to a large extent of overtures. Most of these are to European operas and operettas. There are, however, parts to three overtures by Christoph Bach (1835-1937), who emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee at the age of twenty and who may be considered an American composer. Bach--no known relation to Johann Sebastian and his brood--was a pioneer of American orchestral music publishing; his own overtures are straightforward but serviceable.
The 1880s were the first golden age of the community band, the bands for which bandstands were built in small towns throughout America. The music published for band was often music by local composers published by local publishers, often the composers themselves. No form of music was more democratic. Like orchestra music, the repertoire of band music was practical: medleys, dances, serenades, marches, solos for the various instruments (especially cornet polkas, which usually contained a splashy section of triple-tonguing). But the band was also the medium through which the classics reached the small-town audience: there were band arrangements of works as challenging as Siegfried's Funeral March. This was the period when the first of John Philip Sousa's marches were published as band parts: this online collection has parts for his march "Sound Off."
Much of this music is delightful to play--accessible to the amateur, tuneful, evocative of its period. The pieces entitled "medley," "medley overture," and many of those entitled "lancers" or "quadrille" are also especially useful to the researcher who is trying to find out which were the truly popular tunes of the era. For it is the more popular tunes that were chosen to be arranged for orchestra and band, and it was the most popular tunes of all which worked their way into the medleys and into those dance-medleys that most often made up the lancers and quadrilles.
Note that some publishers, notoriously (in this period) Carl Fischer, would deposit for copyright only the principal part of a set of parts of orchestra or band music. What appears in this collection is all of what was deposited; the user must not assume that it was all that was published. If the set of parts seems to be complete, it almost certainly is; if it seems to be incomplete, it may well be.