Lizzo Makes (Musical) History

By Terrance Turner

Sept. 29, 2022

Singer, songwriter, and flutist Lizzo just made history.

It all started last Friday, when Carla Hayden — head of the Library of Congress — noticed that Lizzo was coming to town. Hayden invited Lizzo to visit the Library’s massive collection of more than 1800 flutes. Hayden even offered to let Lizzo play some of them during the visit:


Why Lizzo? As noted in the Library’s blog post: “The pop megastar is a classically trained flautist. The Library has the world’s largest flute collection.”

Lizzo (born Melissa Jefferson) was taught by renowned music teacher Claudia Momen from age 10 until she graduated from high school. She even played flute in the University of Houston’s marching band. So it was only natural that she would accept the offer from Hayden. On Monday she visited the Library’s collection in Washington, D.C.

One of the flutes there once belonged to President James Madison, famous for writing the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. According to the Library of Congress, the flute was made in 1813 by French watchmaker (and flutemaker) Claude Laurent, who gifted it to Madison for his inauguration:

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.

From the Library of Congress

The flute was rescued by First Lady Dolley Madison in Aug. 1814, when British soldiers set fire to the White House during a campaign in the War of 1812.

Historian Paul de Thoryas’ painting depicting the Burning of Washington. The fire broke out during the Chesapeake Campaign of the War of 1812. Photo from Wikipedia.

Before Lizzo arrived, curators in the Library’s Music Division made sure it could be played safely and without any 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,” wrote the Library’s communications director April Slayton wrote in Wednesday blog post. “. Once she had the all-clear, Lizzo revertently took the crystal flute in hand and played a few notes. She became the first person ever to play the nearly 200-year-old instrument.

Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

Lizzo later serenaded listeners in the Main Room and Reading Room, with a similar-looking plexiglass flute:


When Lizzo asked if she could play the flute at her Tuesday concert in front of thousands of fans, the Library took special precautions to make it happen. According to NBC Washington: “To be transported to the concert, the Library packed the flute in a customized protective container and had a curator and security officer accompnay it to Capital One Arena.”

When Lizzo’s “Special Tour” came to the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Library curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford brought the instrument onstage and handed it to Lizzo. She took it gingerly and trilled a few notes, to the delight of her fans.

A Black woman became the first person ever to play a flute once owned by a former president who not only owned slaves but wrote the 3/5s Compromise (saying Black people only counted as three-fifths of a person). And she did it in front of cheering fans in Washington, D.C. — where the Library of Congress was born. (And Madison is credited as the first to propose the idea of the Library in the first place!)

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