Lizzo and the Crystal Flute
By now, you will have undoubtedly heard how pop superstar Lizzo played a crystal flute that once belonged to President James Madison at a concert in DC last month. The singer, rapper, and classically trained flutist played the 200-year-old piece of American history under the watchful eye of security personnel from the Library of Congress, where the flute is held as part of the Library’s extensive musical instrument collection. But what is the history behind this rare instrument?
According to the Library of Congress, the flute is believed to be one of the few prized possessions that First Lady Dolley Madison rescued from the White House just before British troops burned the city in 1814. It was made by Parisian craftsman Claude Laurent, who had patented the technology for his “flute en cristal” in 1806, winning the silver medal at the Paris Industrial Exposition that year for his invention. At the time, most flutes were made of wood or ivory. Laurent thought flutes made out of glass would hold their tuning better because glass is not as susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity as the other materials. Laurent’s glass flutes were a phenomenon for a few decades, but their popularity waned after metal became the standard material for flutes in the mid-19th century.
President Madison’s crystal flute is exceedingly rare for a number of reasons. First, Laurent made it expressly for Madison to celebrate his second inauguration. The glass is stylized in a way that Laurent reserved for especially illustrious recipients, and the silver joint is engraved with Madison’s name, title, and the year the flute was made (1813). Laurent’s glass flutes themselves are also rare, with only 185 remaining. What’s more, of the 17 Laurent flutes held at the Library of Congress, only two are made of actual high-leaded glass, or crystal. Noninvasive analysis using X-ray fluorescence revealed that the others are actually made of potash glass.
“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 in a statement. Though it may seem surprising that someone was allowed to play such a priceless artifact, it isn’t all that unusual. The Library’s curators made sure it could be played safely without damaging it. In fact, many of the Library’s priceless instruments are played every so often. For instance, YoYo Ma played a 1699 Stradivari cello when he visited the Library in 2021. The Library also has George Gershwin’s piano, which has been played by Lionel Richie and Smokey Robinson. The Library went on to explain how their security protocols for transporting the flute to Lizzo’s concert venue were similar to those they employed when they lent out Thomas Jefferson’s Koran for the World Expo in Dubai last year.
Having such a superstar play Madison’s flute was an excellent opportunity for the Library to demonstrate its role in preserving the country’s cultural heritage, as the Library explained: “The Library's vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them.” What made this moment even more profoundly symbolic is the fact that Lizzo, a Black woman, played a priceless heirloom that had once belonged to someone who had owned more than 100 slaves, and that the instrument was loaned out to her by the first African American and first woman to lead the Library of Congress, Carla Hayden. As Lizzo said, “History is freaking cool, you guys.” We have to agree.