Music history professor earns National Endowment for the Humanities awards for study of 18th-century music culture

June 20, 2023
Photo of Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden


An undergraduate history assignment first got Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden interested in the French Revolution – and she hasn’t stopped thinking about it since.

“On a test, we were asked to write an essay comparing the impact of the American and French revolutions, examining which one was more ‘revolutionary’ and I just became fascinated with the French Revolution,” says Geoffroy-Schwinden, now an associate professor in the UNT College of Music, one of the nation’s largest and most respected comprehensive music schools.

She has since made a career as a historian studying music cultures, especially music in the Age of Revolutions, a period from 1775 to 1848 marked by several world-changing revolutions that toppled monarchies in favor of representative-based governments, scattering people into new societies and cultures around the globe. Her first book, From Servant to Savant: Musical Privilege, Property, and the French Revolution, exposes the fundamental role that the French Revolution played in the emergence of modern professional musicianship and music historiography. She’s currently serving as program coordinator of UNT’s Bachelor of Arts in Critical Studies in Music and Society.

“Music is always both economic and emotional and so it provides a really rich site to uncover individual reactions and structural challenges to political upheaval,” says Geoffroy-Schwinden, who was a member of UNT’s first cohort of D.C. Faculty Research Fellows in 2020.

Her latest research projects have earned her two awards from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, her first from the government agency.

The NEH-Hagley Fellowship on Business, Culture, and Society will support eight months of archival research starting in the fall semester at the Hagley Museum and Library toward a book about the musical and sonic world of the du Pont women’s community in the 18th and 19th centuries from their immigration to the U.S. during the French Revolution to the outbreak of the American Civil War. The du Pont family contributed significantly to the industrialization of America and continues to be one of the nation’s wealthiest families with influence in business and political spheres. Their family estate in America is located at the Hagley Museum and Library near Wilmington, Delaware.

“There is very little existing scholarship exploring the French contribution to American music culture in the early part of our country’s history,” Geoffroy-Schwinden says. “The du Pont family is one way to explore that influence. Music and sound poignantly, sometimes painfully, articulate their deep ambivalences about being women and being French in Early National America, and their materials provide a window out onto their diverse local community and its wider national and global contexts.”

The second award, the NEH Summer Stipends, will support research in Europe during summer 2024 leading to a book, tentatively titled Stories of Music, Luxury, and Loss in the Age of Revolutions, about music in the lives of elite women and their households along trade routes from the East to West Indies. Each chapter will provide an intimate portrait of elite women, their loved ones and their subordinates to reveal the ways in which women used music to relate physically and affectively to one another, as well as to navigate their rapidly changing world. Preliminary work on this project actually led Geoffroy-Schwinden to look deeper into the lives of the du Pont women.

“Musicology has not dealt with the consumer revolution head on and what the consequences of colliding consumer and political revolutions meant for musical production,” Geoffroy-Schwinden says. “Drawing on a material culture framework, my research will disprove contemporaneous texts that described women's musical practices and possessions as superfluous.”

Both research projects will contribute to broadening the experiences documented in music scholarship to offer a fuller look at the impact immigration, revolutions and industrialization had on America’s development in a global context.

“We constantly hear people going back to documents from the 18th century to explain our entire political system here,” Geoffroy-Schwinden says. “I think the more that we understand about that time period, including the values and the culture that emerged and the ways women’s musical lives played a fundamental role, the better we’ll understand ourselves as western consumers and as Americans.”