Lizzo Plays James Madison’s Priceless, 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute

In the annals of mod­ern pop­u­lar music, one does not find a sur­feit of flautists. Tim Weis­berg, in part­ner­ship with singer-song­writer Dan Fogel­berg, did score a mod­est his or two in the sev­en­ties. More incon­gru­ous­ly, Jethro Tul­l’s Ian Ander­son set his band apart with his deci­sion to take up the flute not long before their ear­li­est per­for­mances. But today, out­side the realm of orches­tral music, there is sure­ly no high­er-pro­file flautist than Liz­zo. Though best known as a pop singer, she con­tin­ues to put to use the flute skills she honed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton, with­out which she would­n’t have been able to han­dle a pre­cious piece of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

Last month, writes the Library of Con­gress’ April Slay­ton, one of that insti­tu­tion’s librar­i­ans Car­la Hay­den “saw that the one and only Liz­zo was com­ing to D.C. for a con­cert.” Giv­en that “the Library has the world’s largest flute col­lec­tion,” Hay­den took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to point out that fact to the pop star on Twit­ter. “One of about 1,700 flutes in the col­lec­tion, she teased, is the crys­tal flute made for Pres­i­dent James Madi­son by Claude Lau­rent — a price­less instru­ment that Dol­ley Madi­son res­cued from the White House in April 1814 as the British entered Wash­ing­ton, DC dur­ing the War of 1812.. Might she want to drop by and play a few bars?”

Indeed she did, with results you can see in the video above: at the Library itself, Liz­zo tries out one of the col­lec­tion’s many flutes; then she plays the crys­tal flute itself on onstage at Capi­tol One Are­na, hav­ing been hand­ed it by the instru­men­t’s own secu­ri­ty detail. “It’s like play­ing out of a wine glass,” she tells her thrilled audi­ence. One won­ders if the com­par­i­son would ever have occurred to its first own­er: “It’s not clear if Madi­son did much with the flute oth­er than admire it,” Slay­ton writes, “but it became a fam­i­ly heir­loom and an arti­fact of the era.” Now it has become a unit­ing sym­bol of Amer­i­can cul­ture past and present: how­ev­er for­ward-look­ing the Found­ing Fathers were, we can safe­ly say they nev­er imag­ine twerk­ing.

The Library of Con­gress has post­ed pic­tures of Liz­zo’s vis­it on Flickr. See them here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

But­ter­fly Lands on Flutist’s Face Dur­ing Flute Com­pe­ti­tion: The Show Must Go On

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute — the World’s Old­est Playable Instru­ment — Get Played Again

The Flute of Shame: Dis­cov­er the Instrument/Device Used to Pub­licly Humil­i­ate Bad Musi­cians Dur­ing the Medieval Peri­od

The Library of Con­gress Makes 25 Mil­lion Records From Its Cat­a­log Free to Down­load

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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