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How Lizzo Came to Play James Madison’s 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute During a D.C. Concert

Ellen Gutoskey
Lizzo plays Madison's crystal flute at the Library of Congress.
Lizzo plays Madison's crystal flute at the Library of Congress. / Shawn Miller/Library of Congress
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During her September 27, 2022, concert at Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena, Lizzo whipped out a flute. That wasn’t surprising: The “Truth Hurts” singer is an accomplished flautist, and her performances famously feature flute interludes.

What was surprising about this particular instance was that Lizzo wasn’t playing her own metal flute, but a crystal one that famously belonged to James Madison.

“It’s like playing out of a wine glass,” the artist told the crowd before trilling a stream of notes (and, in true Lizzo fashion, twerking along).

The crystal flute was custom-made by Parisian Claude Laurent as a gift to Madison for his second inauguration in 1813. According to the Library of Congress, there are only 185 of Laurent’s glass flutes still around today, and the bona fide crystal ones are especially hard to come by. It’s also possible that the Founding Father’s flute was one of the few belongings his wife Dolley Madison rescued before British forces set the White House on fire in 1814. In short, the 200-year-old instrument is a rarity among rarities.

The Dress Rehearsal

james madison's crystal flute
James Madison's crystal flute. / Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

The concert wasn’t Lizzo’s first time testing it out. Last week, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden took to Twitter to invite the pop star to come check out the Library of Congress’s 1800-odd flutes—the world’s largest collection—and Lizzo responded to the call with gusto. “IM COMING CARLA!” she tweeted. “AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!”

On Monday, the day before her D.C. concert, Lizzo arrived at the Library’s flute vault and sampled a number of its artifacts. Among them was Madison’s flute, which she later said on TikTok “was so hard to play.” She still managed to make its mellifluous whistling ring out through the Library’s Great Hall and Main Reading Room, though she swapped it for a similar plexiglass version for the majority of the impromptu concert. When she suggested bringing the original out at her show, curators were happy to expose the precious artifact to a much larger audience.

“The Library’s vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them,” LOC director of communications April Slayton wrote in a blog post.

Before Lizzo’s visit, curators had already ensured that the flute wouldn’t be harmed by use, and officials took the same care in setting up a security plan that would keep it safe during its trip to the stadium. Everything went off without a hitch, and Madison’s invaluable antique is now back home at the Library. 

Lizzo said it best during her performance: “History is freaking cool, you guys!”

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