The day before Lizzo’s public performance, she spent the afternoon at the Library of Congress, playing several flutes from her fine collection.
“The history is great, guys!” The singer shouted as the crowd shouted and applauded and sent social media posts flying.
That moment, in all its shining glory, was a sign of an unexpected collision between the past and the present.
But the day before that public performance came a series of private moments at the Library of Congress that proved powerful to those who witnessed it and led to that flute ending up in the singer’s hands at the concert. On the day when the library was closed to the public, Lizzo spent the afternoon exploring her huge flute collection and trying out several historical instruments.
No media organizations were allowed to join the tour, but people who were there described the day as bringing excitement, history lessons, and some great flute playing.
“She’s amazingly talented,” said Carol Lynn Ward Bamford, coordinator for the flute group. She said she’s handed Lizo more than six different types of flutes and she can play them all.
In moments, while she was playing, some of the people who came with her sang and danced.
“That girl is full of so much positive energy,” said Ward Bamford. “It’s been a nice day watching her have fun and love being in the library and the great hall.”
The library contains nearly 2,000 flutes, which make up the largest collection in the world. Physicist Dayton C. Miller collected most of these psalms and left them to the library of his own free will.
“He really thought that the public should have access to him,” Ward Bamford said. “The collection is remarkable in its breadth and comprehensiveness.”
One of the psalms in the collection belonged to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Post made by Miller. It is made of 22 karat gold and its keys are made of 18 karat gold. His collection also included more than just tools. His gift brought to the library about 3,000 rare books on the flute and 10,000 pieces of music for the instrument.
Lizzo’s tour took her to the “flute vault” where she saw flutes made of wood, jade, ivory, and other materials. One of the flutes she played was made of plexiglass at the time the material was first invented. There is only one other flute like it in the world.
She also played Madison’s flute that day for the first time. Ward Bamford described the history of the flute as fascinating.
Made by Claude Laurent in Paris in 1813. This date and his name are engraved on the flute. Ward Bamford said the technology allowed researchers to discover that some of Laurent’s crystal flutes were not actually made of crystal, but the ones he made for Madison were. A letter Lauren wrote to Madison also revealed that he had personally sent the flute to the president—and that the president had failed to thank you.
“Mr. President, you allowed me to send a crystal flute of my invention to you about three years ago,” said a translation of the letter. “Let me express to you my desire to know whether it has reached you and whether this poor honor of my craftsman is acceptable to you.”
There is also evidence that Dolly Madison saved the flute by taking it with her while fleeing the White House before British forces attempted to burn Washington as part of the War of 1812.
But of course we wouldn’t talk about any of this had it not been for Lizzo. If you’re a fan of her, it’s easy to appreciate the importance of seeing her use her flute skills to bring to life a forgotten piece of history. But even if you aren’t, it’s hard not to see what you achieved this week as impressive – you made going to the library a great thing.
She united band nerds, history buffs and self-described librarians, all by accepting an invitation from the 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, to check out her flute collection. The invitation came in the form of a tweet.
Hayden tweeted on September 23: “The librarycongress has the largest flute collection in the world with over 1,800, including an 1813 crystal flute by Bryce James Madison. lizzo would love to come see them and play a couple when you’re in DC next week. They’re like your song ‘Good as’ hell.”
Lizzo’s reply came in capital letters.
“I’m coming Carla!” I wrote. “And I’m playing that crystal flute!!!!!”
Brett Zongker, a spokesman for the Library of Congress, was there the day Lizzo played this and other flutes. He said Hayden talked about “opening the treasure chest that is the Library of Congress and sharing whatever is here with more people,” and Lizzo helped make it happen. She had so many of her fans and others suddenly thinking about the Library of Congress and the parts of our collective history that it holds.
When I asked Lizzo if she could play Madison’s flute at her concert, Zongker said the Library, Conservation, and Security teams are willing to make it happen. The flute was placed in a dedicated protective container and escorted by Ward Bamford and security to the ring.
The crowd witnessed Ward Bamford walking the instrument on stage and handing it to Lizzo, but that moment was only the most visible step in the security operation, he said.
“I want everyone to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, all of you!” Lizzo shouted before cautiously walking the instrument to the microphone and playing some tunes.
The crowd made noise at the time and in the hours that followed, as people online continued to talk about a ney that not many had known a week earlier.
“We made history tonight!” Lizzo said. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history great!”