In recent days, the flute has enjoyed a prominence in popular culture that it hasn’t seen since the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This is due to a performance by Lizzo – a much loved rapper, twerker and flutist (Americans are “flutists”, Europeans “flautists”) – on a 200-year-old flute made of crystal once owned by fourth US president James Madison.
What genius of museum marketing thought to invite her to inspect the Library of Congress collection of some 2000 flutes? Lizzo is offered the 1813 Laurent flute, she plays it and it’s a TikTok sensation quicker than you could whistle Dixie. Which is an apt tune to whistle because many of those who might still enjoy whistling Dixie have been appalled that she was even allowed to touch this sacred relic.
Lizzo has pretty much won that round – a listen to her playing is really all that’s needed there. She plays an opening theme, The Carnival of Venice, with beautiful tone on what is essentially a glass tube with holes in it, and then knocks off some rapid-fire variations, apparently unimpeded by the weight of history or her two-inch acrylic nails.
Like Lizzo, I know what it’s like to be condemned for playing the flute. OK, not quite like Lizzo, I’m a white man after all. But teenage me puckering up to my Yamaha student instrument was an easy target for the scornful.
It was only Jethro Tull that saved me.
Jethro Tull at that point offered a kind of literary prog rock and out the front was a man with masses of hair and beard and a flute. As well as playing it in conventional style, he screamed through it, vocalised simultaneously with his flute lines and managed to make it soar over the electric guitars and the Hammond B3.
If I stood on one leg and screwed up my face while playing the licks from Thick as a Brick, I could do a creditable impression of Ian Anderson in full fluting flight.