It all started with a tweet.
Last Friday, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden saw that the one and only Lizzo was coming to D.C. for a concert. The pop megastar is a classically trained flutist. The Library has the world’s largest flute collection.
Taking to Twitter, the Librarian played matchmaker, tagging Lizzo in a tweet about the world-class flutes.
“Like your song,” she tweeted, “they are ‘Good as hell.’ ”
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?
Lizzo did a hair toss, checked her nails and took to Twitter herself. The 34-year-old has been training on the flute since she was a child. As a college student, she played in the University of Houston marching band. She even performed online with the New York Philharmonic orchestra during the pandemic.
“IM COMING CARLA! AND I’M PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!” she tweeted the next day.
She pulled up to the Library on Monday. Hayden and the Music Division staff ushered her into the flute vault, giving her a tour of the highlights. It’s quite the sight. The main body of Library’s collection was donated in 1941 by Dayton C. Miller, a renowned physicist, astronomer and ardent collector of flutes who was intrigued by their acoustics. His collection includes a walking stick flute, which may now be on Lizzo’s wish list for the holidays.
Now. About that crystal flute.
Laurent was a French craftsman, a clockmaker by trade, who was born in the late 18th century. He took an interest in flutes as a pastime. He patented a leaded glass flute in 1806. Most flutes at the time were made of wood or ivory, but Laurent’s glass invention held its pitch and tone better during changes in temperature and humidity. They were popular for a few decades, but he was almost alone in making them and they faded from popularity after flutes began to be made of metal in the mid-19th century. Today, only 185 of his glass flutes are known to survive, and his crystal flutes are even rarer. The Library holds 17 Laurent flutes, by far the largest collection in the world.
They were near the height of their popularity when Laurent sent a particularly elegant crystal flute to President Madison upon the occasion of his second inauguration. Its silver joint is engraved with Madison’s name, title and the year of its manufacture — 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.
Before Lizzo arrived, the Library’s curators in the Music Division made sure that it could be played safely and without damage. This sort of thing is not as unusual as it might sound. Many of the Library’s priceless instruments are played every now and again, even the five stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari. Those, in fact, were given to the Library by Gertrude Clarke Whittall with the stipulation that they should be played from time to time. Music fans can hear the Library’s Stradivari and some of our other classic instruments — the 1654 Nicolò Amati violin and Wanda Landowska’s Challis clavichord — during the fall 2022 Concert Series.
So, Monday. Our two stars meet cute.
Lizzo reverently took Madison’s crystal flute in hand and blew a few notes. This isn’t easy, as the instrument is more than 200 years old. She blew a few more when she was in the Great Hall and Main Reading Room. Then, reaching for a more practical flute from the collection, she serenaded employees and a few researchers. It filled the space with music as sublime as the art and architecture.
Cameras snapped and video rolled. For your friendly national library, this was a perfect moment to show a new generation how we preserve the country’s rich cultural heritage. The Library’s vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them.
So when Lizzo asked if she could play the flute at her Tuesday concert in front of thousands of fans, the Library’s collection, preservation and security teams were up the challenge. When an item this valuable leaves any museum or library, for loan or display in an exhibition, preservation and security are the priorities. At the Library, curators ensure that the item can be transported in a customized protective container and a Library curator and security officer are always guarding the item until it is secured once more.
For obvious reasons, we don’t say much more about security in public. But when the Library sent Thomas Jefferson’s Koran to the World Expo in Dubai last year, conservation, preservation and strict environmental requirements were enforced. The Library and the State Department executed a plan to transport and securely display the Koran. A Library professional with experience preserving and maintaining the security of important cultural items accompanied the Koran at every step.
The same sort of security was in place for the Madison flute to rejoin Lizzo onstage at Capitol One Arena. When Library curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford walked the instrument onstage and handed it to Lizzo to a roar of applause, it was just the last, most visible step of our security package. This work by a team of backstage professionals enabled an enraptured audience to learn about the Library’s treasures in an exciting way.
“As some of y’all may know I got invited to the Library of Congress,” Lizzo said, after placing her own flute (named Sasha Flute) down on its sparkling pedestal, which had emerged minutes earlier from the center of the stage. Following the aforementioned, highly popular Twitter exchange between Lizzo the Librarian of Congress, the crowd knew what was coming.
“I want everybody to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, y’all!” They made more noise than the instrument, having been at the Library for 81 years, has been exposed to in quite some time. Maybe ever.
She took it gingerly from Ward-Bamford’s hands, walked over to the mic and admitted: “I’m scared.” She also urged the crowd to be patient. “It’s crystal, it’s like playing out of a wine glass!”
Lizzo played just a few notes on the flute, “trilling” the instrument, but she threw her signature twerk into the short performance, sending the audience into a fresh frenzy.
“We just made history tonight!” she exclaimed. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool! History is freaking cool you guys!”
And now, thanks to Lizzo, it’s just that much cooler.