Lizzo Plays James Madison’s 200-Year-Old Flute

Thatcher Fox Richard, Opinions Editor

Pop music star Lizzo was invited to the Library of Congress on September 27 to play a crystal flute previously owned by former president James Madison. 

In addition to being a world renowned musician, Lizzo is also a highly trained classical flutist. She began playing the flute at around 11 years old, and even considered studying at the Paris Conservatory, a music school with a 3 percent acceptance rate.

Lizzo’s journey to Madison’s flute began on Twitter when librarian Carla Hayden took note that Lizzo would be in Washington D.C. for a concert. She tweeted “The Library of Congress has the largest flute collection in the world with more than 1,800. It incl James Madison’s crystal flute. @Lizzo we would love for you to come see it and even play a couple when you are in DC next week.” Lizzo wasted no time in letting Carla know she was interested in playing the flute, tweeting out the following day “I’M COMIN CARLA! AND I’M PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!”

The flute in question was made by Parisian craftsman and clockmaker Claude Laurent in 1813. Laurent patented his “flute en cristal” or, “crystal flute” in 1806. Soon after, Laurent’s crystal flutes soared in popularity — being owned by kings, emperors, and other heads of state like Madison. About 175 of them were made in total, but Madison’s flute was made especially for him, engraved with his name and title.

Madison’s flute in particular is special amongst the other Laurent flutes owned by the Library of Congress. It was previously believed that all 20 Laurent flutes owned by the library were made of crystal, but it was recently discovered that 18 out of the 20 flutes were in fact made from glass, making Madison’s flute truly one of a kind.

It is needless to say that this flute has traveled rather far before making its way into the hands of Lizzo. However, it has undergone even more of an ordeal than meets the eye. On August 24, 1814, Dolly Madison (James Madison’s wife) was fleeing the white house just prior to British troops setting fire to Washington D.C. during the war of 1812. With her, she managed to save a myriad of precious heirlooms and relics from the White House, including Madison’s crystal flute. Without the former first lady’s valiant effort to save those artifacts, we would be left without Laurent’s beautiful instrument. In fact, Dolly Madison was rescued what is now one of the most iconic portraits of George Washington in her escape as well.

All this is to say that there was quite an effort to preserve this one-of-a-kind flute that seems to have made its way into the hands of Lizzo 209 years later. But, regardless of its history, what makes this flute so special? Why the effort of preservation? And why would Lizzo want to play a crystal flute when most flutes of that time were made from ivory or wood? 

Because the flute is constructed using crystal, it does not expand and contract with changes in humidity as its wooden or ivory counterparts do. This allows the flute to hold its pitch and tone much better. While most flutes today are made of metal and thus do not have to worry about humidity either, that was certainly not the case in 1814 when Laurent’s flute en cristal was made. It was a feat of engineering at the time.

Fast forward to present day, Lizzo is standing in the Library of Congress. It seems like the flute was slow to get going, which is not abnormal for a 200-year-old relic; often they need to be “warmed up” in some way or another in order to play. Additionally, to the knowledge of the Library of Congress, Lizzo’s playing of this flute en cristal was the first time it had ever been played.

Lizzo then asked Carla Hayden if she would be able to play Madison’s flute at her concert in D.C. that week. Hayden and her team gave Lizzo an enthusiastic yes and got to work making sure the flute could securely travel to the venue.

Her concert performance with Madison’s flute was truly a symbolic moment. Not only did a widely successful Black woman play the flute of the former owner of a slave plantation, but Carla Hayden (the woman who invited Lizzo to the Library of Congress) is the first Black woman to ever lead the Library of Congress.

All of the attendees at Lizzo’s Washington D.C. concert were able to hear her play Madison’s flute en cristal. Until that point, the only people who had ever heard this flute were Lizzo, Carla Hayden, and a few of the other employees working at the Library of Congress. After a bit of playing (and a bit of dancing at the same time) Lizzo exclaimed to the audience “we just made history tonight! Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool! History is freaking cool you guys!” Without the tireless preservation work from people like Carla Hayden, we would not have cool historical moments like this. Lizzo is most certainly right, history is pretty cool!