Inside Lizzo’s historically important flute performance at the Library of Congress

3 October 2022, 14:55

Lizzo performs on the flute in Library of Congress reading room

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

In videos released by the Library of Congress, Lizzo demonstrates her innate ability for historically informed performance...

History was made last week as Lizzo hit the headlines for playing a 200-year-old crystal flute gifted to former American president James Madison in 1813, on stage at a concert in Washington DC.

The twerking superstar was met with screaming cheers and raucous applause as she demonstrated the historic instrument’s abilities, trilling crystal clear notes across DC’s Capital One Arena.

One day before the public performance, Lizzo gave a more private recital – this time with an absence of twerking – within the walls of Washington DC’s Library of Congress, which houses over 1,700 flutes as part of its broad collection of historical musical instruments.

Lizzo was invited by Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, in an informal tweet to try out the Library’s collection of flutes, which included Madison’s crystal instrument, which was made by the French mechanic, Claude Laurent, for the former President’s second inauguration.

In two videos released by the national library, Lizzo performs an arrangement of the folk tune The Carnival of Venice (popularised by virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini) and an excerpt from Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata. Listen above and below.

Read more: Lizzo makes history by playing the Library of Congress’ 200-year-old crystal flute

Lizzo performs on the flute in Library of Congress great hall

Earlier today, TMZ reported via a representative for the James Madison Montpelier estate that, since her concert performance, Lizzo has been invited to take a private tour of the former American president’s well-preserved estate.

Commentators have been quick to point out the significance of the multi Grammy Award-winning singer’s performance last Tuesday night; Madison was a wealthy slave owner and when the former president received the flute as a gift, he owned more than 100 enslaved people. The president never freed any of the enslaved people who worked for him, neither during his lifetime or in his will.

In a TED Talk, Lizzo has previously spoken on the origination of twerking. She traces the movement to a West African dance called mapouka and speaks about how it entered American culture from the transportation of slaves from the African continent to the states.

Her choice to twerk while playing the centuries-old instrument should consequently not be dismissed as simply an embellishment to her performance.

It should also be noted that Dr. Hayden, who invited Lizzo to try out the flutes, is the first woman, and the first African-American to hold the post of Librarian of Congress.

Read more: Lizzo brought her flute to the Met Gala, and performed Debussy on the red carpet steps

Lizzo plays flute in Library of Congress vault

Sharing Lizzo’s performances within the library’s walls on Twitter, Dr. Hayden said, “You didn’t think Lizzo played that antique flute on stage without practicing first, did you?”.

As well as playing Madison’s flute, Lizzo also played the original John Sousa piccolo, which was used to play the famed solo from the American patriotic song, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. During her time as a flute major at the University of Houston, Lizzo played piccolo in the marching band, so is no stranger to this central piece of American band music.

When Lizzo asked if she could take the Madison flute and play it on stage at her concert in Washington the next day, the Library of Congress team had a difficult task on their hands, as they arranged for a library curator and security officer to accompany the instrument at all times.

Read more: Lizzo plays Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ on the flute in hilarious orchestra sketch

Lizzo plays James Madison's crystal flute in iconic moment on stage

Flautists across social media shared their appreciation for Lizzo bringing the flute, and the Library of Congress’ music collection, into the public eye, but Lizzo’s technique and musical skills were also commended.

As one anonymous musician explained on Facebook, “Lizzo has almost undoubtedly studied historical performance.

“Normally she plays the modern Boehm concert flute, cylindrical bore, pitched in C with the keynote played with seven fingers down and extensive keywork for the accidentals.

“The Laurent crystal flute is a pre-Boehm simple system instrument, pitched in D, tapered bore, keynote played with six fingers down, only a few keys. Their playing characteristics are therefore markedly different, to the point where they are not at all interchangeable.”

Once again, Lizzo proves herself to be an astonishingly well-rounded musician who can hold her own whether on an arena stage, or exploring the intricacies of instruments from ages past.