In a city where history is usually represented in its faded and patina form, Tuesday night saw it shine.
The day before Lizzo’s public performance, she spent a private afternoon at the Library of Congress, playing several flutes from her impressive collection.
“History is cool, guys!” The singer screamed and clapped as the crowd roared and sent social media posts flying.
That moment, in all its glorious glory, marked the unexpected collision of past and present.
But before that came a series of private moments at the Library of Congress one day at a public event that became powerful for those who watched them, and that flute ended up in the hands of a concert singer. On a day when the library was closed to the public, Lizzo spent an afternoon exploring its large flute collection and trying out several historical instruments.
No media organizations were allowed to join the tour, but those present described the day as one of excitement, history lessons and some impressive flute playing.
“She’s incredibly talented,” said Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, who serves as curator of the flute collection. She gave Lizzo more than a half dozen different types of flutes and said she could play them all.
At some point, while she was playing, some people who accompanied her sang and danced.
“That girl is full of so much positive energy,” Ward-Bamford said. “It was a joyous afternoon to see her in the library and great hall enjoying and loving.”
The library has nearly 2,000 flutes, the largest collection in the world. Most of them flute physicist Dayton C. Miller and left to the library in his will.
“He really believed that people should have access to it,” Ward-Bamford said. “The collection is remarkable in its breadth and comprehensiveness.”
One of the flutes in the collection belonged to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The second was done by Miller. He crafted it from 22-carat gold and made his keys from 18-carat gold. His collection included more than instruments. He brought about 3,000 rare books and 10,000 pieces of music on a flute as a gift to the library.
Lizzo’s tour led her to the “Flute Vault” where she saw flutes made from wood, jade, ivory and other materials. One of the flutes she played was made of plexiglass when the material was first discovered. There is only one other flute like it in the world.
She also played the Madison flute for the first time that day. Ward-Bamford described the history of the flute as fascinating.
It was created by Claude Laurent in Paris in 1813. That 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 were made by him for Madison. Laurent’s letter to Madison also revealed that he personally sent the flute to the President—and that the President failed to say thank you.
“Mr. President, I took the liberty of sending you a crystal flute of my invention about three years ago,” reads a translation of the letter. If so, I have to learn.”
There is also evidence that Dolley Madison saved the flute when she fled the White House before attempting to burn down Washington as part of the War of 1812.
But if it weren’t for Lizzo, we wouldn’t be talking about any of this. If you’re a fan of hers, it’s easy to appreciate the importance of seeing her use her flute skills to revive a forgotten piece of history. But even if you’re not, it’s not hard to see what she accomplished this week as impressive — she made going to the library cool.
Accepting an invitation from the 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, to view the flute collection, she gathered a self-described band of scholars, history buffs and librarians. The invitation came in the form of a tweet.
“@librarycongress has the world’s largest collection of over 1,800 flutes,” Hayden tweeted on September 23. “It includes Pres James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute. @lizo they are ‘good as hell’ as your song says. “
Lizo’s answer came in all seriousness.
“I’m coming Carla!” she wrote. “And I’m playing that crystal flute!!!!!”
Brett Zongker, a spokesman for the Library of Congress, was there the day Lizzo played the flute and others. He said Hayden talked about “opening up the treasures that the Library of Congress is and sharing what’s here with more people,” and that Lizzo helped make that happen. She had many fans and others were suddenly thinking about the Library of Congress and parts of our collective history.
When Lizzo asked if she could play Madison’s flute in her concert, Zongkar said the library’s collections, preservation and security teams were ready to make it happen. The flute was placed in a customized protective container and escorted into the arena by Ward-Bamford and security.
The crowd saw Ward-Bamford walk on stage and hand the instrument to Lizzo, but that moment was only the most visible step in the security process, he said.
“I want everyone to make noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, all of you!” Lizzo shouted before carefully walking the instrument to the microphone and playing a few notes.
The crowd roared then, and in the hours that followed people continued to talk online about a flute that didn’t exist a week ago.
“We made history tonight!” Lizzo said. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history so incredibly beautiful!”