Play It Again, Lizzo

How Madison came by that crystal flute.

Shawn Miller

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

In a bold tweet, Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, shared James Madison’s priceless crystal flute and issued a tempting invitation: “@lizzo we would love for you to come see it and even play…” 

The Grammy-winning pop star, an accomplished flutist, tweeted back: “IM COMING CARLA! AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!” And she did, at the Capital One Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. last September. As the sound ricocheted around the world, we wanted to know the backstory.

What was Madison doing with a crystal flute in the first place? It turns out, the flute was a gift from Parisian watchmaker Claude Laurent, who’d won a silver medal at the 1806 Paris Industrial Exposition for his flute with exceptionally clear sound. He’d handcrafted this one in 1813 to honor Madison’s second inauguration.  

(Photo by Sharen Montgomery)

By 1815, Laurent followed with a polite inquiry: “Mr. President, I took the liberty of sending to you about three years ago, a crystal flute of my invention,” he wrote. “Please allow me to express to you the desire that I would learn if it has reached you…?” Had Madison failed to acknowledge Laurent’s gift? Was his thank-you lost in the mail? We’ll never know. 

But unlike Jefferson, who played the violin, and Washington, the zither, our fourth President was no musician. “As far as we know, he never played it,” says Hilarie Hicks, senior research historian at Montpelier, Madison’s home in Orange. “It was probably more of a curiosity.” 

After Madison’s death, the flute passed to a collector, who later bequeathed it to the Library of Congress. Although Lizzo’s crystal-flute moment was fleeting, Hicks says the Grammy winner is always welcome to play it again—this time, at Montpelier. Montpelier.org


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Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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