It’s 205 years old. It’s made of glass. It only has four keys—and I (Debra) needed to learn how to play it.
What are we talking about? The Laurent crystal flute, of course! This unique flute has become a special guest in our performances—and we’ll feature it in our 2022 recording project for our third album, Yes, It’s a Fragile Thing!
The Laurent crystal flutes inspire more mystique than any other flute. Flutists dream of owning one; history buffs dream of hearing one played. There are perhaps only 140 examples of this type of flute worldwide, many of which are in museums like the Library of Congress. Few are actively played; in fact, we know of only four. This type of flute is therefore rarely heard. We’d like to share more of the backstory and history behind this special flute to bring it (and our performances) to life.
What’s a Laurent crystal flute?
Let’s start with a brief flute history lesson. Claude Laurent was a master flute maker to the French aristocracy. He was also a skilled glass fabricator. An innovator at a time when flute playing was popular in all levels of society, Laurent began making flutes in glass in 1806 in Paris. At this time, flutes were still made of wood. The introduction of the metal flute would come later, around 1838 (and cause its own stir). Laurent patented his glass flute in 1806 and won a silver medal that year at the Industrial Exposition in Paris. Laurent flutes quickly became the ultimate status symbol. They were owned by emperors, kings, and other royalty and aristocrats. They were also given as gifts to, among others, President James Madison.
Laurent made his flutes until 1848, and they became sought after for their ornate designs, including cut-glass and gemstone crowns (the piece on the very top of the flute). With just four or eight keys, depending on the model, these flutes were somewhere between the wooden one-keyed flute of the Baroque era (17th and early 18th century) and today’s modern, keyed flute made of precious metals like sterling silver or gold.
This was a period of political and geographic upheaval in Europe and the United States—Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France, and the British and the US had gone to battle in the War of 1812. It was also a period of rapid innovation in many different areas, from arts to industry. As time passed, the Laurent flutes fell out of favor as the modern keyed flute made popular by flutist Theobald Boehm became dominant. (Today’s flutes are based on the Boehm system.)
Yet in the last 50 years, the Laurent flutes have become sought-after again. After all, it’s fascinating to own and play a piece of history.
Finding a rare flute
I (Debra) first became enchanted with crystal flutes in 1987 on a trip to Washington DC, during which my husband and I met with Robert Shelton, then the curator of the Dayton C. Miller Collection at the Library of Congress. Mr. Shelton graciously permitted me to handle several Claude Laurent flutes, including the one that belonged to President James Madison. My husband decided that I should own one, and secretly put the word out with several antique instrument dealers.
In 1997, flute historian David Shorey acquired this flute at an estate sale in Florida. My husband bought it from him and surprised me with it. I was completely intimidated by the idea of playing it, as I had never attempted a historical flute, much less one made of glass! The flute remained safe and sound in its case with an occasional visit from me until winter 2014 when a flutist friend pointed out that 2016 would mark its 200th year—so, she said, I had a moral imperative to learn to play and perform on it.
Making my mind up to play the flute was one thing; actually accomplishing it was another. I had to start by figuring out the pitch of the flute, so I used an app recommended by Michael Lynn, a leading world expert on historical flutes and a professor at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. Playing the flute with the guitar is ideal because Paul can tune down to the instrument’s pitch. Beyond this, I had to learn some different fingerings for notes than what is used by modern flutists today. You can find many fingering charts for simple-system flutes and work through scales and simple exercises to learn them—but applying them to music that you’re learning on a new instrument is a matter of putting in focused hours (and hours and hours) of practice.
The flute is made of lead crystal and is in unrestored condition. It is pitched at A=430, below today’s modern pitch, which means that Paul and I make special adjustments to play together. Made in Paris in 1816, its crown contains a large, faceted quartz crystal. The keys are sterling, the bore frosted, and the exterior decoratively cut.
I have a few rules about playing this very special flute. First, I only take it out when I’m well-rested and energized, because dropping it will break it. Though I usually stand while practicing, I always sit while playing the crystal flute, so that if I do slip, the flute falls into my lap. I also never have anyone else in the room with me during practice—except, of course, when I’m rehearsing with Paul. Lastly, I put a large sheepskin over the feet of my metal music stand as an extra layer of protection.
I have loved playing my Laurent crystal flute and I hope you enjoy hearing it too, in person or on our upcoming recording.
Our upcoming crystal flute album
As we plan for our 2022 album recording, we’ve issued a Call for Scores for crystal flute and guitar. What’s a Call for Scores? Think of it as a formal invitation for composers to pitch us their ideas for new music. Thirty-two composers from around the world have thrown their hats in the ring with forty interesting ideas for pieces. We’re in the process of reviewing their ideas now to choose the five or so who will join composer Gary Schocker, who has already written Crystal Healing (2016) specifically for us to celebrate this flute’s 200th year.
We’ve noticed that our performances with this flute have consistently drawn larger, more diverse audiences. Because of this, we believe this recording project is an important strategy for our audience development mission, and we look forward to bringing the beautiful sounds of this historic flute to life through the creativity of living composers. We can’t wait to share it with you.