Lizzo plays new notes on James Madison's crystal flute from 1813

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Lizzo plays new notes on James Madison's crystal flute from 1813
A photo provided by Shawn Miller and the Library of Congress shows Lizzo practicing with James Madison’s flute before bringing it onstage during her concert at Capital One Arena in Washington. A classically trained flutist, the singer, rapper and songwriter spent more than three hours admiring the flute collection at the Library of Congress. Shawn Miller/Library of Congress via The New York Times.

by Michael Levenson

NEW YORK, NY.- Lizzo looked uncharacteristically nervous as she crossed the stage in a glittering mesh leotard with tights and sequined combat boots.

A classically trained flutist who began playing when she was in fifth grade and considered studying at the Paris Conservatory, she has woven flute into many of her songs, has played virtually with the New York Philharmonic, and her flute, named Sasha Flute, even has its own Instagram page.

But waiting for her Tuesday night was an exquisite (and highly breakable) musical instrument that had arrived at her concert in Washington under heavy security: a crystal flute that a French craftsman and clockmaker had made for President James Madison in 1813.

“I’m scared,” Lizzo said, as she took the sparkling instrument from Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, a curator at the Library of Congress, who had carefully removed the flute from its customized protective case. “It’s crystal. It’s like playing out of a wineglass.”

As the crowd roared, Lizzo played a note, stuck out her tongue in amazement, and then played another note, trilling it as she twerked in front of thousands of cheering fans. She then carried the flute over her head, giving the crowd at Capital One Arena one last look, before handing it back to Ward-Bamford.

“I just twerked and played James Madison’s crystal flute from the 1800s,” Lizzo proclaimed. “We just made history tonight.”

It was a symbolic moment as Lizzo, a hugely popular Black singer, rapper and songwriter, played a priceless instrument that had once belonged to a founder whose Virginia plantation was built by enslaved Black workers. And the flute had been lent to her by Carla D. Hayden, the first African American and first woman to lead the Library of Congress.

The moment came together after Hayden asked Lizzo on Friday to visit the library’s flute collection, the largest in the world, with about 1,700 of the instruments.

Hayden wrote on Twitter: “@lizzo we would love for you to come see it and even play a couple when you are in DC next week. Like your song they are ‘Good as hell.’”

Lizzo responded without much hesitation.


Lizzo arrived Monday, with her mother and members of her band. Hayden and staff members ushered her into the “flute vault,” and gave her a tour of the collection, which includes fifes, piccolos and a flute shaped like a walking stick, which Lizzo said she might want as a Christmas present.

Lizzo spent more than three hours at the library, trying out several instruments, staff members said.

She played a piccolo from John Philip Sousa’s band that was used to play the solo at the premiere of his song, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” And she played a plexiglass flute, made in 1937, filling the ornate Main Reading Room and marble Great Hall with music, to the delight of library workers and a handful of researchers who happened to be there.

“Just the enthusiasm that Lizzo brought to seeing the flute collection and how curious she was about it,” Ward-Bamford said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s been wonderful.”

Most of the collection — including Madison’s crystal flute — was donated in 1941 by Dayton C. Miller, a physicist, astronomer and ardent collector of flutes.

Madison’s flute had been made for his second inauguration by Claude Laurent, a Parisian craftsman who believed that glass flutes would hold their pitch and tone better than flutes made of wood or ivory, which were common at the time.

The flute’s silver joint is engraved with Madison’s name, title and the year 1813. “It’s not clear if Madison did much with the flute other than admire it, but it became a family heirloom and an artifact of the era,” the library said.

The library believes that the first lady, Dolley Madison, might have rescued the flute from the White House in 1814, when the British entered Washington during the War of 1812, although it has not found documentation to confirm the theory.

Only 185 of Laurent’s glass flutes remain, the library said, and his crystal flutes are especially rare. The Library of Congress has 17 Laurent flutes, it said.

When Lizzo asked if she could play Madison’s crystal flute at her concert Tuesday, the library’s collection, preservation and security teams swung into action, ensuring the instrument could be safely delivered to her onstage.

“It was a lot thrilling and a little bit scary,” Ward-Bamford said.

Or as Lizzo told her cheering fans after she played the instrument: “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool. History is freaking cool, you guys.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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