Tippett - A Child of Our Time

Out of the choral comfort zone with Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’

Tippett composed 'A Child of Our Time' in response to events which marked a catastrophic upheaval in my parents' lives, and without which I would not exist - which makes singing it an unusual and unsettling experience for me.  Much of the choral repertoire - requiems, passions, masses and all - is rooted in Christian belief and scripture, which can make a Jewish atheist like me pause to think. Many of the people singing around me might have lost or discarded the faith they grew up with, but most of them were at least brought up to see the Christian story as their own.  I, on the other hand, will often catch myself in choir rehearsals thinking 'It's not my story, but the musical satisfactions make it all worthwhile.'  Or 'Why does God get all the best tunes?' or even 'Why can't some of the repertoire have more to do with my own story?'  But now that we've started rehearsing 'A Child of Our Time' (the first time I've sung in it) I'm beginning to think I should be careful what I wish for.

Tippett read the news about the 17-year-old Jewish boy, Herschel Grynszpan, who shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris in November 1938, and about Kristallnacht, the vicious pogrom the Nazis launched against Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in response.  For Tippett, these events provided a focus for ideas that had been taking shape in his mind, for an oratorio about oppression and man's inhumanity to man.

At 17, Herschel Grynszpan was close to my mother in age, and the two had far more in common: both born and educated in Germany, with parents who had immigrated from Poland and still had Polish nationality.  He fired his bullets in protest at the treatment of his parents and some fifty thousand other Jews who had been deported from Germany to Poland that year.  They included my mother and her family, kicked out of their homes in Leipzig and dumped in no-mans-land at the Polish border.  "We cannot have them in our Empire, They shall not work nor draw a dole, Let them starve in No-Man's-Land" as Tippett's libretto puts it.  When the Nazis' Empire spread east into Poland in 1941, my mother's entire family of 46 people were among those murdered.  My mother and one sister who had found a way to get out to Britain were the only survivors.  "We are as seed before the wind. We are carried to a great slaughter."

Meanwhile in Munich, my father, a few years older than Grynszpan, was one of thousands of young men arrested and briefly imprisoned to frighten them immediately after Kristallnacht.  "Away with them!  Curse them! Kill them! They infect the state," was the message, and it got through.  As soon as he was released my father fled across the Alps to Italy, from where he managed to get to London on the last civilian train through France before war broke out.

'A Child of Our Time' was consciously modelled on Handel's Messiah and the great St John and St Matthew Passions by Bach.  Despite Tippett's harsh dissonances, the echoes of Handel and Bach are sometimes obvious, not least in the fugal writing of some of the choruses.  What I like most about the piece is Tippett's use of African-American spirituals in place of Bach's chorales, to punctuate the narrative and provide pauses for reflection.  He chose these to make the point that oppression echoes through human history and reflects the same 'dark side' of human nature, whoever the perpetrators and the victims might be.

Tippett's do-it-yourself libretto has been much criticised.  His friend and mentor T. S. Eliot famously turned down Tippett's request to write the words, leaving him to do it himself.  As an outspoken anti-Semite, T. S. Eliot would seem an odd choice for this job, so I can't help thinking the piece is better off without him, despite his superior poetic powers.  I wonder whether anti-Semitism could have been Eliot's real motive for refusing the work.

In the penultimate chorus, the choir sings of "an abiding hope, The moving waters renew the earth, It is spring" and I am struck by how jarringly optimistic these words seem in the context.  It is worth remembering that 'A Child of Our Time' was written between 1939 and 1941, when the Nazi regime's murderous intentions had become clear but nobody knew the horrific scale of methodical slaughter that was to follow.  It is hard to imagine this or any other oratorio being composed in 1945 after the liberation of Auschwitz and Belsen.

I am glad that there is a great piece in the choral repertoire that commemorates this history and is regularly performed, and for me it is a rare exception in relating so closely to my own family background.  But that makes it uncomfortable.  When Bach calls for his chorus to be an angry mob baying for Christ's blood, I can do my best to get into character and deliver.  But when Tippett has us sing "Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel", that's a challenge I haven't met before as a choral singer, because this is a drama of events within living memory, and "them" is my own parents.

Stephen Engelhard, Bass 2

(Brighton Festival Chorus is preparing Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’ for the closing concert of the 2019 Brighton Festival on May 26th).

Posted on 28th February 2019

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San Nicola 2017

In May 2017 my husband and I participated in a Pilgrimage to Bari, in Puglia, Italy, which culminated in a magnificent three day festival including a concert in the Basilica San Nicola: ‘The Story of St Nicholas’, portrayed through piano, tenor and narrator (in Italian of course, so I needed to be familiar with the story!) The next evening saw a street procession bearing the icon of St Nicholas. This included trapeze ‘fairies’ supported by helium balloons. The next morning a further procession bore the icon from the Basilica to the harbour (see image above) where there was a firework display in broad daylight, along with a Mass and Blessing of the Sea. The fish market added another colourful ingredient! That evening a further procession bore the icon onto a boat in the harbour. Further fireworks made for a stunning display along with an aerial display in a flyover above Bari.

On the third day, the festival concluded with the Mass of the Holy Manna in the Basilica San Nicola during which there was an extraction the “Manna” from the sealed box containing the relics in the crypt. It is said that the production of this liquid remains a mystery. A further display of fireworks brought the festival to a close.

So you see, the Saint for whom Britten found fit to compose, is truly revered in Bari to this day.

Many legends grew up around him, often featuring the number three, e.g. he was believed to have rescued three girls from prostitution by his gift of three bags of gold for their marriage dowries; to have restored three boys to life after they had been murdered in a brine tub by a butcher; to have rescued three sailors from drowning; and to have saved three men unjustly condemned to death.

The text in our scores brings to life the rescuing nature of Saint Nicolas!

Kate Belfield, Alto 1

Tickets for our concert

Posted on 8th February 2019

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Britten’s War Requiem: a message of hope

One hundred years on from the end of the war it portrays, Benjamin Britten’s greatest choral work remains as poignant as ever, says Emma Gregg

Benjamin Britten’s astounding War Requiem is both a roar of protest against the horror of human conflict, and a heartfelt plea for peace. It was commissioned at a time when memories of both World Wars were still raw, and the words Britten chose – some drawn from the Latin Missa Pro Defunctis, others from the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen – are drenched in anguish. There are moments of spitting anger, in which the soloists express fury at the betrayal of an entire generation. Chillingly, at times, you can hear bugle calls in the orchestra, and the sickening thud of artillery. When at last, in the closing movement, serenity comes, you’re left drained by the emotional impact of what has gone before.

 

I can still remember the half-terrifying, half-thrilling feeling of leaving my choral score behind in the dressing room, ready to perform this richly challenging work by heart

 

Today, Armistice Day, Brighton Festival Chorus is preparing for its second performance of this monumental work in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the choir’s own 50th anniversary year.

At the Brighton Festival in May, we joined forces with Dutch conductor Arie van Beek, the Britten Sinfonia and the Orchestre de Picardie, which is based on the River Somme in Amiens, for a concert in which we sang the entire War Requiem from memory.

I can still remember the half-terrifying, half-thrilling feeling of leaving my choral score behind in the dressing room, ready to perform this richly challenging work by heart. A score can be many things – a prompt, a prop, even a shield to hide behind. But after hours of painstaking study and rehearsal under our musical director James Morgan, I was ready.

Winston Churchill visits the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1941, ten months after the Coventry Blitz

Our forthcoming concert is set to be every bit as powerful. This time, we’ll be performing in the space for which the War Requiem was commissioned in the early 1960s, Coventry Cathedral, together with the Coventry Cathedral Chorus and Choristers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The date of our concert, Wednesday 14 November, is profoundly significant. It was on the night of 14-15 November 1940 that much of Coventry city centre, including its Gothic cathedral, was ruined by devastating bombing raids.

 

Among the many people who sprang to the aid of others during the bombardment was a local doctor, less than a decade into his career

 

Numerous stories of that fateful event survive, but one in particular is very close to my heart. Among the many people who sprang to the aid of others during the bombardment was a local doctor, less than a decade into his career, whose actions that night earned him the George Medal. According to the official report published in the London Gazette, this young man “showed a high degree of courage and resource which contributed to the saving of a number of lives.”

“While fires were raging and bombs falling,” the report continues, “he coolly continued to go, partly on foot and partly by bicycle, from one incident to another, administering morphia to those trapped in the wreckage, and applying first aid under conditions of extreme difficulty, with complete disregard for the intense bombardment and for the very real personal danger entailed.”

The thought of that young man pedalling through the Coventry Blitz with his doctor’s bag on the back of his bike gives me shivers. And it’s his story that I shall be remembering on Wednesday. His name was Henry Norman Gregg, and he was my grandfather. Family folklore has it that his hair turned white overnight.

The ruins of Coventry's Gothic cathedral, a lasting reminder of the 1940 Blitz

Since, for our Coventry performance, we’ll have our scores back in our hands, I’ve been scribbling new notes into mine. Some are suggestions from Britten himself; remarkably, a 1963 recording exists of the composer delivering rehearsal instructions to the Bach Choir in clipped, mid-century tones.

Several conductors have led us on our journey to Coventry, each armed with fresh passion and insight. Back in the spring, James Morgan helped us visualise the Requiem’s harrowing context via a series of wartime photographs, and Arie van Beek brought us his own, distinctively European, perspective.

 

Try singing mechanically, as if you’re neither awake nor asleep, neither dead nor alive

 

Last month, our guest conductor Murray Hipkin, assistant conductor of the English National Opera, offered us little snippets of information about the ENO’s new interpretation of Britten's War Requiem, the preview of which will take place at the London Coliseum on the night of our concert. “At this point, our chorus are all lying flat on their backs”, Murray said of the first movement. “Try to imagine that. Try singing mechanically, as if you’re neither awake nor asleep, neither dead nor alive.” This is not the kind of direction we're used to. But we dug deep.

Our last rehearsal on home turf was on 6 November, exactly 100 years and two days after Wilfred Owen’s tragic death on the Western Front. Coventry Cathedral’s musical director Paul Leddington Wright, who will conduct us on Wednesday, paused in the lull before the last passages of poetry. “It’s so evocative, isn’t it?” he said. “You can almost smell the smoke of the battlefield. You can see and feel the devastation.”

 

"The audience will be able to look over your heads to the floodlit ruins of the old cathedral beyond." In my mind’s eye, we were already there.

 

Explaining that the War Requiem is as much a cultural artefact of the modern cathedral as its Graham Sutherland tapestry, its John Piper stained glass, its Elisabeth Frink lectern and its Cross of Nails, Paul helped us picture the performance to come.

“We’ll be staging it back to front, if you like. Instead of placing you in front of the altar of the modern cathedral, you’ll be at the west end, so that the audience will be able to look over your heads to the floodlit ruins of the old cathedral beyond.” In my mind’s eye, we were already there.

Britten's War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration of Coventry's new cathedral in 1962

Could Europe ever be drawn into the terror of war once again? As we progressed from movement to movement, the question kept returning. For much of the last seven decades, it’s been unthinkable. Collective memories, kinship and a shared love of music are just a few of the many threads which bind our continent together.

We may be bobbing on a tide of uncertainty, but, like Britten, an ardent pacifist, we must hold on to hope. It’s what my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations, who fought so hard for peace, would have wanted. And it’s what my generation wants, too.

Emma Gregg, Alto 1

Paul Leddington Wright, Kerry Beaumont and Simon Over will conduct the Brighton Festival Chorus, Coventry Cathedral Chorus, Coventry Cathedral Choristers and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in their performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral at 7pm on Wednesday 14 November 2018.

As well as commemorating Armistice Day and the Coventry Blitz, this concert is part of the year-long Plumb Line Festival (plumb-line2018.co.uk) marking 100 years of the Diocese and Cathedral of Coventry.

Posted on 11th November 2018

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Tracking Down Early Members

As has been widely advertised, 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of BFC. The committee has been planning a series of events to mark this, and one of these is a party for current BFC members, plus as many early members as we can find. As my wife Marilyn is one of only two remaining founder members, and because she is very good at organising events like this, she and I were given the job of tracking down and inviting as many early members as we could locate.

This turned out to be quite a complex piece of detective work.  When the Chorus was founded to perform a specific piece of work (Belshazzar’s Feast) at the 1968 Brighton Festival, few people expected it to still be going strong fifty years later, so virtually no records were kept. We had a copy of the first programme for that concert, which listed the singers, but it only gave surname and initials, i.e. J. Smith, D. Brown, etc. We then had to contact any early members we are still in touch with to try to add any further information they could remember – ideally including contact details.

Some of the people we were then able to contact put us in touch with others they could remember, and so we managed to build up a partial picture. Sadly, we discovered that quite a few of the early members have died. Although we still don’t know the identity of many of those early pioneers, we should be able to invite enough of them to have a decent party later this year!

Steve Linehan, Bass 1

 

Posted on 19th February 2018

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Sunrise

Word painting abounds in two of the pieces that featured in BFC’s summer concert, ‘Sunrise’, reflects Alto 2, Susanne Hoebel.

Summer! What better way to spend a summer′s evening than to go to a concert of summery music. This time the Brighton Festival Chorus and the Brighton Festival Youth Choir will perform at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, a new venue for us and by all accounts a very pleasant one.

Is there another composer whose music so vividly conjures up the English countryside and the atmosphere in open natural surroundings as Vaughan Williams? On hearing a piece by him I feel instantly transported to ″green and pleasant lands″. Learning An Oxford Elegy has proved more of a challenge than it first appeared. The text makes use of poems by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, and rather than the choir singing all the words, there is a narrator to read them. Every now and again there is a ″Safety pause″, where the choir stops – at a stile or a garden gate – thus allowing the narrator to catch up, as he is reading his words and ″hastening along with eager steps″. It is a beautiful and – as the name suggests – elegiac piece.

The Sunrise Mass by Ola Gjeilo also paints sound pictures, with the long, drawn-out notes of the Kyrie making the rising of the morning sun an audial experience. And as with watching a real sunrise where you can never be sure of catching the exact moment when the sun finally, finally pops over the line of the horizon or the mountain ridge or the crest of a hill, here the music is suddenly complete and ends in a long Amen as the landscape fills with sunlight.

What the Youth Choir has prepared – Letters to Lindbergh by Richard Rodney Bennett – I haven′t heard yet, but judging by past samples of their singing, the last one being their presentation to us, the members of BFC, a couple of weeks ago, it is bound to be good.

Then the summer break. No singing. Oh – except for the re-auditions, of course!

Susanne Hoebel. Alto 2

BFC performed Vaughan Williams, ‘An Oxford Elegy’ and Ola Gjeilo, ‘Sunrise Mass’ with Chamber Domaine for their 2017 summer concert in the Attenborough Centre on the University of Sussex campus on Saturday 8 July.

 

Posted on 8th July 2017

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Adams vs Ravel

Harmonium puts Bass 1, Steven Harris, in mind of Ravel’s Bolero.

We are preparing John Adams’s Harmonium for performance in the Brighton Festival. John Adams is a minimalist composer; this does not mean that he is particularly small or of little importance. Minimalist music is characterised by being non-narrative, non-teleological and non-representational or, as we might say, repetitive. However, repetition does not mean boring - quite the contrary, it is by repetition that the drama is built up. Think of Ravel’s Bolero, for example.

Harmonium is wonderful music, but there’s no denying that it’s a challenge to perform. It takes the singers well out of their comfort zones, both figuratively and literally; altos and basses are required to sing well above their normal ranges and to find notes they didn’t know they have.  It has constantly changing rhythms, with syncopations and syncopations within syncopations. It has a lot of repetition, with no comforting landmarks to latch on to, few cues to let you know where you are. And in the absence of such cues each singer has to adopt a strict arithmetical approach, counting every bar religiously so as to avoid missing an entry or giving an involuntary solo. On the other hand, a strict arithmetical approach would squeeze the life out of the piece. It is, as always, a matter of finding the right balance.

Harmonium is a setting of one poem by John Donne and two poems by Emily Dickinson. Their themes are love, sex and death. It starts with the choir singing 152 bars of steady crotchets, mostly but not invariably four to a bar, amounting to about 600 notes. The words put to these notes are repetitions of ‘No, no, no, no’ and ‘ne, ne, ne, ne’, with the occasional ‘never’ thrown in. It would be interesting to know what Donne and Dickinson would make of the settings of their words. Emily Dickinson was of a notably reclusive and self-denying disposition, so she might well have approved of the repetitions of ‘no’, ‘ne’ and ‘never’, though these are from John Donne’s poem. All that ‘no, no, no, no’ calls to mind the refrain to an old music hall ballad: ‘No, no, a thousand times no, you’ll never buy my caress; No, no a thousand times no; I’d rather die than say yes.’ This is a sentiment that Emily Dickinson might have approved of, even if she might not have been comfortable with its expression.

Harmonium is a challenge and we look forward to meeting the challenge. But, we can take comfort from the fact that we are not the side drummer in Ravel’s Bolero, who starts off ‘tum ti-ti-ti tum ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti tum’, and repeats this for the next 15 minutes, playing 430 bars and 5,144 drum beats. And woe betide the drummer who gives 5,145 drum beats!

Steven Harris, Bass 1

Posted on 25th May 2017

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On Learning Harmonium

Susanne Hoebel takes us through Harmonium from the perspective of an Alto 2.

Something must be happening between the music and myself, if I wake up in the middle of the night with ″Because I could not stop for death″ singing in my head. No sound, of course, and the off-beat rhythm is perfect. In my head. Feeling pleased with myself I go back to sleep to the sound of ″I never stooped so low″. Rhythm not a problem. Clearly I am ingesting the music, internalising it, absorbing it, perhaps even into my bloodstream.

The moment when the hard slog of learning this piece is turning into the thrill of singing it, has come. I can see now how everything is fitting together, how the repetitiveness of no-no-no-no-no-no and dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat is intensifying and crystallizing into the ″I″ of ″I never stooped so low″ which takes off and soars above all else. A mediocre poem? I don′t think so. Then ″My love, though more silly, is more brave″ – with all the off-beats perfectly in place – a description of the speaker′s love ″ex negativo″, having dismissed two other kinds of love, and now the choir asserts this love, affirming it, shouting it out loud, with the orchestra going full pelt.

On to the next section, ″If that be simply perfectest″, where the two women′s sections have to hold their own against each other. No-no-no-no-no, don′t give in to the pull of the rhythm of the other section, stick to your own on-the-beat, off-the-beat, and it will be ″perfectest″ and lead at length to the beautiful whispered end.

So many other things. Such as the beauty in ″Wild Nights″, if the ″ts″ of ″nights″ comes in unison from the entire choir. The thrill of the climax where everything seems to clash, culminating in a tremendous, awe-inspiring noise.

Or the challenge in ″Negative Love″ of the low ″G″ in the alto line that we must hang on to at all cost, despite it grating against everything around and despite also the closeness of the much more comfortable seeming ″F″. Then the ″Rowing″ section in ″Wild Nights″, where again each line has to be defended against the conflicting one, with fingers moving along the bars and a glance to the person next to you confirming that you are still on the same page – the expression resuming its literal meaning for the moment – and then the sopranos rising above the gentle rowing rhythm provided by the altos and singing that beautiful line.

Oh so much! There is so much in ″Harmonium″, so much to enjoy, to learn, to listen out for. So much to go wrong, too – but we mustn′t dwell on that as all will be well!

Susanne Hoebel. Alto 2

Britten Sinfonia rehearsing Harmonium at Henry Wood Hall, London

Posted on 25th May 2017

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Encountering Emily Dickinson

A cinema trip, a concert in aid of Parkinson’s UK and the recent Brighton Festival Youth Choir concert combine to permeate the thoughts of Alto 2, Sarah Earl.

I seem to be having a bit of an Emily Dickinson 'fest' at the moment. It all started with a momentous rendition of ‘No Rack can Torture Me’ – a Dickinson poem that Morgan Pochin set to music as part of their work, Invictus: A Cantata for Liberty which BFC commissioned two years ago and which was revived for the recent concert in aid of Parkinson’s UK at the Royal Albert Hall - together with the release of the film, A Quiet Passion (viewed like quite a few in the choir did, in the very intimate setting of Uckfield Picture House). Now there’s the upcoming performance of Harmonium ‘at the end of the month’. That sounds ever so much better than ’four days’.

All this has prompted me to download the complete works of ED onto my Kindle. I guess a lot of the work was scratched away as she burnt the midnight oil and, due to her quirky approach to punctuation, were quite heavily edited before publication. Apparently she herself published very few of the 1,800 poems that she penned. However, as I plough through, many lines appear to set themselves in my head to the music we which we are now so familiar, and references to Death, Eden and Immortality pop up again and again. Perhaps it’s time for a dance company like Rambert to take up the baton and add their interpretation to the mix – if they haven’t done so already (Oh, I’ve discovered they did: ED’s ‘If I may have it when it’s dead’ featured in their ‘In the Labyrinth of Love’ tour six years ago! Sorry to have missed that).

Then, last Friday, it was the turn of our very wonderful Youth Choir. Juliette admitted having force-fed them with Dickinson as well, and we were treated to a wonderful version of their setting of ‘No Rack’ for higher voices and Laura Farnell’s three-part setting of ‘Heart, we will forget him’. Those clear young voices just rang out in All Saints Church, Hove.

Really excited, but a bit nervous, of course, about Sunday …

Sarah Earl, Alto 2

Posted on 25th May 2017

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SymFunny No. 2

On 19 April 2017 Brighton Festival Chorus took part in SymFunny No. 2, the second fundraising concert in aid of Parkinson’s UK, in the Royal Albert Hall. Alto 2, Susanne Hoebel, reflects on the experience.

The concert organised by Parkinson′s UK was a resounding success, we sang the ″roof right off the Albert Hall″, as it says in the lyrics of the first song, and both the music and the message – that more be done to find a cure for the disease – floated up into the evening sky and was heard far and wide.

So loud and clear was the call for new drugs and more funding for more research to bring alleviation, if not a cure, to the people suffering from Parkinson′s that scientists in their white coats heard it and were prompted to work feverishly all night in their research laboratories achieving a decisive breakthrough in the early hours which they proudly announced the next morning on the BBC news. That′s how it was, right?

Unlikely. That′s magical thinking. Although exactly such an announcement was made on the morning after the concert. A breakthrough in the research, the prospect of a new drug. A cure just round the corner. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

It was the second concert. SymFunny No. 2. The first one was in 2014. So why this one? As James said in his speech: ″The first concert was three years ago. Since then nothing has happened. I still have Parkinson′s. There is still no cure.″ (Not verbatim.)

So Parkinson′s UK felt they had to make some more noise. Shake people up. Prod the research institutes. But also raise awareness. Nobody who came to the concert last night and watched the video about Karen could have been in any doubt about what a truly horrible, life-changing, even life-shattering disease Parkinson′s is, and also life-long, whilst there is no cure.

A life-changing disease, also for those who live with people afflicted by Parkinson′s, because it takes so much resilience and inner strength. I am full of admiration for Juliette, and for Juliette and James as a couple, who have decided to take this monster head on and not be defeated by it. And who composed ″No rack can torture me″, based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, to show their resolve. It is a beautiful, beautiful piece, and we sang it proudly in the Royal Albert Hall last night.

I took part at the first concert, I took part last night, and if need be, I will take part again.

Susanne Hoebel, 2nd Alto

Posted on 22nd April 2017

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