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ClassicsOnline Home » BEN-AMOTS: Celestial Dialogues / Hashkivenu / Shtetl Songs
Celestial Dialogues combines two great Jewish musical traditions: a klezmer clarinet solo— deriving from the haunting virtuoso sounds typical of traditional eastern European Jewish bands—and cantorial vocal passages that emanate from age-old Ashkenazi liturgical ritual. Both mystical and worldly, the “dialogues” evoke timeless songs and dances of Jewish experience, striving for the spiritual purification of prayer. Composer Ofer Ben- Amots has also created unforgettable vignettes and character portraits of eastern European Jewry in Shtetl Songs, and he further explores the mysteries of the Sabbath in Hashkivenu— Song of the Angels.
Ofer Ben-Amots (b. 1955)
Celestial Dialogues • Hashkivenu – Song of the Angels • Shtetl Songs
About the Composer
Ofer Ben-Amots (b.1955), who was born in Haifa, Israel, gave his first piano concert at age nine, and at sixteen he was awarded first prize in the Chet Piano Competition. Later, following composition studies with Joseph Dorfman at Tel Aviv University, he was invited to study at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was a student of Pierre Wismer and Alberto Ginastera. He received degrees in composition, theory, and piano from the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold, Germany, and in 1987 he emigrated to the United States and began studies with George Crumb and Richard Wernick at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Ph.D. in composition (1991).
Ben-Amots's music has been performed by such orchestras as the Zürich Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the Austrian Radio Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Moscow Camerata, the Heidelberg, Erfurt, and Brandenburg symphonies, the Filarmonici di Sicili, and the Colorado Springs Symphony. His works have been recorded by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, and the renowned Czech choir, Permonik. He has been commissioned by the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, the Fuji International Music Festival in Japan, the Delta Ensemble in Amsterdam, and the Assisi Musiche Festival, among others.
Ben-Amots was the winner of the 1994 International Competition for Composers, in Vienna, where his chamber opera, Fool's Paradise, was premiered. He is also the recipient of the 1988 Kavannagh Prize for his composition Fanfare for Orchestra and the Gold Award at South Africa's 1993 Roodepoort International Competition for Choral Composition. His Avis Urbanus, for amplified flute, was awarded first prize at the 1991 Kobe International Competition for Flute Composition in Japan. Subsequently, Avis Urbanus became a required composition at the Kobe Flute Performance Competition. In 1999 he was awarded the Aaron Copland Award and the Music Composition Artist Fellowship by the Colorado Council on the Arts. Ben-Amots is a Jerusalem Fellow of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, and he has been its artistic director for North America since 1997. Currently he is associate professor of music at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs. His work for soprano, klezmer clarinet, and men's chorus, Mizmor: Seven Degrees of Praise, an imaginative setting of Psalm 150, received its premiere performance at Lincoln Center in New York in November 2003 as part of "Only in America ", an international conference-festival sponsored jointly by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Milken Archive.
Hashkivenu — Song of the Angels
A Short Choral Cycle
(Note by the composer)
In 1979 I left Israel to continue my studies at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva. At a Sabbath evening service at a local synagogue there, I heard a tune I had never heard before, which was sung for the liturgical text hashkivenu — a prayer recited at every evening service, although this particular melody was reserved in that synagogue for the Sabbath. I was immediately inspired by its beauty and its mixture of dignity and melancholy. Although the synagogue was a traditional Ashkenazi one, I recognized from the tune's character that it could not be of Ashkenazi origin. Indeed, it turned out to be a traditional Sephardi version, known in Near Eastern Sephardi as well as Moroccan synagogues. But the Geneva rendition is a distorted variant of the tune, probably because those worshipers were removed from the mainstream of Sephardi liturgical practice. In any case, I memorized the tune as I heard it there and I resolved to use it in one of my next works.
About a year later I wrote Hashkivenu Variations for string quartet, employing this melody as the principal theme, but in the ensuing years I still felt that I had not explored sufficiently the full potential hidden in the inspiring tune. So in 1993 I returned to it for a series of short choral movements within my opera Fool's Paradise. In this comic opera, there is a role for some singers who pretend to be angels and who sing hashkivenu in celestial harmony. That new piece — for four-part mixed choir, percussion, and organ — offered a fresh perception by combining the essence of the hashkivenu prayer text with other Sabbath-related mystical images: (1) the Sabbath Queen — the sh'khina, traditionally understood as the feminine manifestation of the Divine Presence, who is welcomed into the midst of the congregants as the Sabbath approaches; (2) the kabbalistic image of the "Sabbath bride", who enters during the preliminary kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service, which precedes the section of the evening service proper (arvit) during which hashkivenu is recited or sung; and (3) allegorical images of the angels who are perceived poetically as ushering in the peace of the Sabbath and even accompanying worshipers home for the evening meal following the service to ensure the blessing and presence of Sabbath peace. (According to a legend in an allegorical passage of the Talmud [Shabbat 119B], two angels, one good and one evil, escort each Jew or family home. When, upon seeing the home specially prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel expresses the wish that it may be the same on the following Sabbath, even the evil one is compelled to give his assent. Hence the words in the well-known Sabbath hymn shalom aleikhem, sung prior to commencing the meal: "May your departure also be with peace, angels of peace!" — viz., peace for the following Sabbath as well.)
In this newer choral version, I complemented the elements and fragments of the traditional tune as I heard it in Geneva with new, original material for the words in the hashkivenu text — v'taknenu b'etza tova milfanekha (Direct us in the right path through Your good counsel). The cycle ends with the angels' departure, recalling the dual image in the shalom aleikhem text, "Come with peace [also in the final strophe of l'kha dodi in the kabbalat shabbat service] and go with peace". The ending is a musical echo of the angels' entrance, but this time the wordless canon is accompanied by dark, distant cluster sounds in the organ.
The composer views this work as a "stylistic confrontation" between a klezmer clarinet solo — deriving from the haunting virtuoso sounds typical of traditional eastern European Jewish bands — and cantorial vocal passages that emanate from age-old Ashkenazi liturgical ritual. The piece also constitutes what he calls "a dichotomy between song and dance, which at the conclusion become one and the same expression: a prayer". The strings — which function simultaneously as collective participant, audience, and echo — for the most part represent a worshiping congregation experiencing what a congregation engaged in true prayer would: a process of spiritual purification.
I. Am kadosh (Holy Folk)
This is an introductory cadenza in which the two soloists make their initial entrances and musical statements. The movement's title, Am kadosh (Holy Folk), refers to a traditional call to Jews to arise for morning prayers — "to serve the Creator". It echoes an old common practice among Jews, especially in small towns and villages, or in certain religious neighborhoods in Israel (and previously in Palestine), particularly during the period of the yamim nora'im (Days of Awe) — during the days immediately preceding Rosh Hashana and the "ten days of repentance" between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — when the s'lihot liturgy (penitential prayers) is recited at the daily morning services (shaharit). The local shammash (beadle) would go from house to house at dawn, knocking on each door to awaken the inhabitants and calling on them to hasten to the synagogue to join the congregation for morning prayers. Thus did observant Jews begin each day in those traditional surroundings, as they still do.
II. Uv'yom hashabbat (The Sabbath Day)
The focus here is on the cantor's song. Its nusah hat'filla (the prescribed traditional musical formulas and modes for specific prayers, sections of services, and specific days or holydays in Ashkenazi ritual) here is centered around a single principal focal pitch (the reciting tone of the chant), which is given a continuous rumbling sound in the cellos and basses.
III. A gasn nign (A Street Song)
In this movement the clarinet takes the lead in a purely instrumental tune reminiscent of Jewish bands in eastern European towns and villages — klezmorim — who typically played these type of melodies in the street, particularly when welcoming the guests as they arrived to participate in a wedding ceremony.
IV. Adonoi melekh (God, the King)
This is an emphatic proclamation of God's sovereignty, expressed by solid support from the entire ensemble. The marked, even exaggerated individuality of the solo parts, and the contrast between them, symbolize the individuality and uniqueness of each worshiper as a participant in the communal prayer. These three phrases affirming God's eternal sovereignty — past, present, and future — derive from the Bible and occur in this combination throughout the Hebrew liturgy.
V. Celestial Freylekh
The instrumental peak of the entire work is this traditional eastern European Jewish wedding dance of joy, the freylekh. The movement begins with a solo recitative for the clarinet and continues with the orchestra as it becomes a perpetual-motion wedding dance, symbolizing a marriage between heaven and earth — between man and God, and between humanity and its Divine source.
VI. Dinen (Serve!)
The composer describes this concluding movement as "a quietly ecstatic setting" based on a Hassidic melody attached to a piyyut (liturgical poem) recited in the Yom Kippur liturgy and, in some traditions, every Sabbath. This prayer traverses the entire Hebrew alphabet in the acrostic of its strophes, punctuated after each one by the refrain "To You whose life is eternal". Ben-Amots has employed this melody as an illustration of the way in which the major mode is often reserved in Hebrew liturgy "for the most serene and solemn moments".
Neil W. Levin
To Ofer Ben-Amots, and to many of his generation, it often seemed as if Yiddish were spoken only by elderly immigrants from eastern Europe who were, for the most part, Holocaust survivors. "Growing up in Israel just a few years after the state was born", remarked the composer, "Yiddish was known to me — especially as the son of a Bulgarian Sephardi mother and a father from Libyan Jewry — erroneously as a 'vanished tongue' of a bygone era and a distant place".
Indeed, many among the younger generations of Israelis then, like their predecessor halutzim (pioneers) before them in Palestine, had attached to the Yiddish language the opprobrium of association with the "old order" and the Old World, and thus in their eyes it was a cultural artifact of bitter memories: exile, ghettos, pogroms, disenfranchisement, poverty, and helplessness. Those perceptions were at odds with the new spirit of youthful regeneration, a fresh start, national pride, and statehood, fostering the notion that Yiddish represented an encumbrance of the past that deserved shedding, if not extinction. Even the very sound of the language appeared in that naïvely arrogant perception to clash with the modern image of a proud, strong, and free sabra — a native of the "old-new" land.
There were also political overtones. Those among the establishment who had come from German Jewry sometimes had an aversion to Yiddish as the aural-cultural logo of eastern European Jewry. And to those, like Ben-Amots, from non-European backgrounds altogether — Sephardi, Yemenite, Persian, Babylonian, Syrian, Bukharan, and other Jews from the Arabic world and the Jewish orient — Yiddish and its culture were simply foreign.
"In retrospect", reflected Ben-Amots, "many of us chose simply not to be aware, or to let ourselves become aware, of the proud legacy of Yiddish culture and Yiddish-speaking Jewry during the previous hundred years — the defiance and assertiveness of the Jewish Labor Bund in eastern Europe; the sophisticated Yiddish artistic life that had reigned in many cosmopolitan European cities; the rich body of secular Yiddish literature; or the heritage of Yiddish song". True, there were small, cloistered resident circles of non-Zionist, and even anti-Zionist, Yiddish-speaking extreme orthodoxy in Israel then, including certain deeply pious Hassidic sects. For them Hebrew was exclusively a "holy tongue", not to be profaned by vernacular use — at least not until the messianic era arrived. Moreover, to them, modern Hebrew (as opposed to biblical or liturgical Hebrew) represented the secular parameters of the Haskala, or the Jewish Enlightenment, as well as the Zionist cause and its nonreligious state — the very developments to which they were opposed. But the Hassidic connection to Yiddish had to do with daily communication and religious study, not Yiddish culture. And in any case, Ben-Amots's circles had little or no contact with those self-segregated groups. If anything, the very association of Yiddish with such intensely orthodox religious adherents only seemed to confirm to the majority of young Israelis their youthful misperception of the language as outdated, fossilized, and tied to backwardness.
Ben-Amots later reflected that — apart from those very pious religious circles — it seemed to these young Israelis that, even if some of the older generation of eastern European immigrants did speak Yiddish, they must have done so exclusively in private. For them, as for all who were committed to the Zionist ideal of resettling and rebuilding the ancient homeland, the new language — the symbol of long-sought nationhood — was modern Hebrew, and Hebrew was inextricable from the Zionist ideology of national rebirth.
Ironically for a young Jewish composer, it was in Germany, while he was a student there in the 1980s, that Ben-Amots really "discovered" Yiddish. "My introduction to German culture and language during that sojourn", he recalls, "provided me with the key to one of the two basic original linguistic components of Yiddish. I began to acquaint myself with that Jewish language as well, and soon I gained access to a wealth of eastern European literary works by poets, novelists, and playwrights such as Sholom Aleichem, Yehuda Leib Peretz, S. An-Sky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, Mendl Mocher Sforim, and so many others." It was also in Germany that Ben-Amots stumbled by chance upon an old, almost tattered copy of a collection of Yiddish folksongs that had been published in Europe decades before. He was intrigued by the simple beauty of those tunes and the mixture of pain and humor in the poems. His instinct as a composer was to rearrange the songs with a fresh artistic and personal interpretation. "In a way", he later remarked, "I felt as if I was doing my share not only to elevate these marvelous songs from their natural folklore milieu to an art form, but also to preserve them." The songs he selected became the material for his new song cycle, Shtetl Songs, which he completed shortly after his immigration to the United States. "This cycle thus became my first 'American work'", he has said with great pride. He describes it as
…a musical tour of the enclosed Jewish neighborhood or small town in eastern Europe during the 19th and even early 20th centuries. The work portrays aspects of the daily life of those inhabitants, which encompasses their happiness as well as their pain and daily struggle, their hopes as well as their despair. Throughout the cycle one meets characters and situations typical of our perceptions of shtetl (market town) life... I looked for the harmony and form suggested to me by each song. There is dissonance, and there are clusters and chromatically oriented runs in the piano part. Overall, the piece is far from being tonal in the traditional sense; but parts of it can be very modal, depending upon the tune.
The complete cycle comprises nine songs, of which six have been included on this recording. There is also a version for mixed chorus.
The charm of the first song, Bay dem shtetl (words by Zalmen Rozental, 1892–1959), resides in its simplicity. A poor but contented family lives in a small cottage. As he has done all his life, the father labors continuously, and he even manages to buy a number of animals for the family: a dog, a horse, a goose, and a hen. When the hen finally lays eggs, it is a major event and cause for rejoicing, and when the chicks are hatched, it seems miraculous to the children. Like most folksongs, which, as folklore, were known exclusively by oral transmission long before any collector transcribed them, this song has many text as well as musical variants — probably only some of which are extant today.
Bistu mit mir broyges (Are You Upset with Me?) describes a typical moment in the interaction of a married couple in many religious or even quasi-religious circles of small-town eastern European Jewish life of that period — especially among those attracted by Hassidic beliefs and superstitions. The wife appears to be "out of sorts" — in low spirits or somehow distressed. Her husband, protesting that he doesn't know why she would be angry with him — or perhaps more out of classic concern for sholem bayes (household peace) and as a sign of his love and concern — suggests a visit to the rebbe (rabbinic-type leader of Hassidim) for counsel and to request the rebbe's prayers on behalf of their marriage, a common practice in that world regarding personal matters. The husband also tries either to defuse his wife's anger or to brighten her mood (depending on how one interprets the words) with promises of gifts. The piano part consists of a set of variations depicting the mood of each strophe.
The vagueness of the text could also invite other, complementary as well as colliding, planes of interpretation — including modern psychological, psychosexual, or sociological constructions. Gender-driven contemporary readings might intuit a cynical inference in the husband's attempt to placate his wife, and some might interpret the visit to the rebbe, and especially the suggestion of his supposed powers of intercession, not merely as an innocent reference to a common folk practice, but as a satirical jibe at what many outside the Hassidic world perceived as foolishness. Indeed, during the 19th and early 20th centuries — influenced especially by more rigorously academic rabbinic circles and mitnagdim (opponents of Hassidism), probably at first in Lithuania — a specifically satirical, so-called anti-Hassidic, Yiddish song repertoire accumulated. These songs mocked Hassidic ways and superstitions and poked fun in particular at the nonintellectual orientation and the alleged self-serving charisma of certain Hassidic rebbes.
In some cases the anti-Hassidic genesis of such songs is known; in others the message is transparent in the words. But the viewpoint or bias is not always so clear. It is not always certain whether the words actually bespeak a satirical agenda, whether they simply extol or even romanticize perceived Hassidic virtues or attributes — or whether the very ambiguity is itself part of the satire.
Some songs long assumed to be of anti-Hassidic genesis, however, have been subjected more recently to reassessment by folklorists. Sometimes such modern reexamination leans toward accepting the Hassidic references at face value. Bistu mit mir broyges presents us with these many possibilities.
Klip klap can be interpreted as a humorous interchange, in a slow waltz tempo, presumably between a young man and the woman he courts. He implores her to open the door and let him in from a rainstorm, but either she is too shy and hesitant or she thinks it improper — and improper for him to ask. On the other hand, perhaps they have had a quarrel and her response is purely sarcastic. One might also infer erotic overtones.
Typical of many European Hassidic songs, Royz, royz owes its origin to a non-Jewish secular song — in this case a Hungarian shepherd's love song — from which it was consciously adapted. This procedure was consistent with a view espoused by certain Hassidic circles, and promulgated by some Hassidic masters, that the inner musical essence of even a profane tune is redeemable by Judaic spiritual and mystical appropriation, thereby transferring that musical element to a higher, or holy, purpose. The history of this song provides an illustration of the process by which such songs sometimes evolved from foreign, completely nonreligious ones to those encapsulating specifically Hassidic religious concepts. In Royz, royz the transferred idea concerns the intertwined relationship between the Divine Presence and the Jewish Diaspora, which is seen not only as a political-geographic and physical dispersion, but as a spiritual exile. Within that context, a long-held belief among certain Hassidic circles is that all tunes originated in the sacred music of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem — viz., that all music is inherently holy and originated as such, emanating from God. Accordingly, melodies — like the people Israel — were expelled from their source and dispersed "among the other nations and peoples". Far from perceiving the musical adoption process as either theft or imitation, "redeeming" such songs is said to restore them to their appropriate spiritual status, allowing them to regain their sanctity.
The Hassidic adoption and adaptation of the song now known as Royz, royz is attributed by legend to Rebbe Yitzhak Taub of Kaliv (Hungary), also known as the Kaliver Rebbe. According to the legend, he was walking in a field when, upon hearing a young shepherd singing this tune to the Hungarian words Ruzha, ruzha, yak ti daleka (Rose, rose, how far away you are), he discerned a profound sense of spiritual longing and pain deep beneath its outer layers. The Kaliver Rebbe gave a few coins to the lad as a symbolic ransom to redeem the song — and also to cause him to forget it permanently, which he did immediately. The rebbe then altered and adjusted the words to suit the deeper meaning he intuited in it, connecting it now to the sh'khina (the Divine Presence, or Holy Spirit) who is far away, and to the galut (Jewish exile) that seems so endless. In the Midrash — a collective body of interpretive commentary and explanatory literature on Scriptures that incorporates much teaching by way of allegorical, legendary, anecdotal, and parabolic means — the sh'khina, seen as the "feminine manifestation" and merciful side of God's presence, is said to have joined the House of Israel as it was dispersed into exile. In the song's new guise, the shepherd's sentiments of worldly romantic longing have given way to a spiritual longing for the sh'khina, almost as if the singer is challenging the sh'khina to demonstrate the reality of the Midrashic anecdote by shortening the exile. For if the sh'khina accompanied Israel into the exile of the Diaspora, how could it now appear to be so far away? And if the Divine Presence indeed were not so distant, the exile would not last so long. Yet in Hassidic perception it is this very longing for, and seeking to cling to, the sh'khina that will bring greater closeness and, ultimately, redemption and an end to exile.
Royz, royz is still a popular song — with many text variants and adaptations, including liturgical ones — among some contemporary Hassidic groups. These extant variants include one that combines Hebrew and Yiddish fused with the original Hungarian, and one that is a parody expressing marital longing. Ben-Amots was particularly interested in the wide range of this melody, which is unusual for folksongs. In its descent over a span of one and a half octaves, he heard a gathering lament.
The melody of Di dray neytorins is attributed to M. Shneyer (1885–1942). Its words, by the famous Yiddish poet and writer Yehuda Leib Peretz (1852–1915), describe the anguish and despair of three seamstresses who work endlessly in a sweatshop, with no hope of normal married life and only eventual death to anticipate. The continuous clicking sound of the sewing machines is mirrored throughout the piano part in this setting.
Der rebbe tantst is a folksong that is also known by its text incipit, Sha, shtil. It is commonly assumed to have originated as one of the satirical anti-Hassidic songs, in this case mocking the dancing rebbe (rather than one who is studious or scholarly — although in another extant variant strophe the rebbe discourses on the Torah), his blindly devoted followers (his Hassidim), and their superstitious belief in his powers. But it could also be viewed — as it is by many Hassidim themselves — more benignly as a simple testament to the spiritual power of music and dance. In the present transformed setting, the successive strophes are presented as a set of variations on the principal theme. But Ben-Amots also has given this otherwise strophic song a through-composed treatment, whereby it gains in intensity and motion from beginning to end through continuous or developing variations.
T'hillim, the biblical Book of Psalms, is arguably the most "musical" book among the Holy Scriptures. Unlike the other books of the canon, T'hillim is not divided into p'rakim, or chapters, but rather into mizmorim — liturgical songs. In fact, the word psalm stems from the Septuagint's translation of the Greek, psalmoi, referring to "songs sung to [the accompaniment of] plucked string instruments". The Book of Psalms, comprising 150 individual texts, provides us with the largest body of original Hebraic liturgy. Moreover, from the principal content of a number of Psalms, and from their superscriptions, we learn something of musical performance practice in Jewish antiquity, and we are given indications of the variety of instruments during the First and Second Temple eras.
The text structure of the Psalms repeatedly reveals the literary technique of parallelism, which has a direct bearing on our knowledge of musical forms and vocal performance practices. Thus, a verse is often divisible into two subsections, each representing the same basic idea but with different words and even different poetic feet. Psalm 81 is an unambiguous example of such poetic parallelism. The phrase "Sing aloud unto God, our strength" has its parallel in the succeeding one: "Raise a shout for Jacob's God." Similarly, the phrase "For it is a law of Israel " is matched by the words "a ruling of Jacob's God". In Psalm 81 we also find another form of verse partition, a technique that may be described as "supplementary parallelism". In such cases, the second subsection of the verse goes beyond merely repeating the meaning of the first with similar but different wording, and it adds a new element, twist, or bit of new information to the initial statement. The obvious and simple process of expressing that parallelism musically involved either dividing the chorus into two groups (antiphony), or dividing the rendition of verses or subsections between soloist and chorus (responsorial rendition). Indeed, these "call and response" forms are among the earliest patterns to enter the early Church liturgy — in the Gradual, psalmody, and hymnody. The responsorial technique has remained an integral part of Hebrew liturgy and liturgical rendition in the interplay between precentor (sh'liah tzibbur, or messenger of the congregation), or, later, hazzan (cantor), and congregation.
Psalm 81 is attributed to Asaf, the director of the choirs in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Inspired by the architecture of the text, the composition is structured as a large A-B-C-B-A "return" form. When I first examined Psalm 81, the very prospect of setting to music an original biblical Hebrew text intrigued me. My plan was to create a blend of excitement and mystery through a highly rhythmic treatment, with constantly shifting meters at a high rate of speed. This setting accentuates the unusual, irregular rhythm of ancient Hebrew, with poetic meters of 9, 11, 13, 15, etc. Second, I was interested in the parallelism of the text and its natural impact on musical form. Therefore, I chose to divide the choir into two parts and compose the Psalm setting as an antiphon. The frequent reference to musical instruments in the Psalm (drum, stringed instruments, shofar) was another inspiring element that triggered my imitation of the shofar call in the divided choir — a motive that can be heard clearly at the end of section A. In addition, I added timpani and a large batterie of other percussion to accompany the choir.
I found the concluding part of verse 6 the most intriguing: "When He went out through the land of Egypt, language I heard that I knew not." The implication of the Hebrew word sh'ma (listen) in this context is twofold: perceiving sound, a musical function; and understanding, or realizing. The mystical and apocalyptic facets of a sudden revelation or enlightenment expressed in these words became the central part of the work — a slow fugato, marked "adagio".
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