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Malcolm MacDonald: Vytautas Bacevičius and his seven Mots

The Lithuanian composer Vytautas Bacevičius died in New York on 15 January 1970, having spent nearly half his life in exile. His name was almost unknown and few of his major works had been published or performed. Nowadays, by contrast, especially since the centenary celebrations in Kaunas and Vilnius in 2005, he is celebrated in Lithuania as one of the most original, and certainly the most radical and forward-looking, Lithuanian composers of the twentieth century.


Bacevičius was born on 9 September 1905 in the Polish city of Łódź, into a cultured and highly musical family of joint Polish-Lithuanian origin. His father, Vincas Bacevičius, was a music-teacher from Lithuania who had married a Pole, Maria Modlínska. Their two boys and two girls grew up in Poland but often spent the summer in Lithuania. The best-known member of the family would be Bacevičius’ sister, the gifted Polish composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–69). While she remained in Poland with their mother, and adopted the Polish form of the family name, Bacevičius moved to Lithuania in 1926 to join his father, who had settled in Kaunas, which was the ‘provisional capital’ of Lithuania while Vilnius remained under Polish occupation.


Bacevičius began composing at the age of nine and made his debut in concert in 1916 as both pianist and violinist. His first studies were in Łódź from 1919, including composition with Kazimierz Wilkomirski and Kazimierz Sikorski. After graduation from the Helena Kijeńska Conservatoire in 1926 – by which time he had already made a reputation in Poland as both pianist and composer – came his move to Kaunas, where he studied philosophy and aesthetics at the Vytautas Magnus University. In 1927 he went to Paris, where he studied composition with Nikolai Tcherepnin at the Russian Conservatory and philosophy at the Sorbonne. A Lithuanian state scholarship then enabled him to divide his time between Kaunas and Paris until 1931 – a period during which he was part of a distinguished Parisian circle of emigré composers of pronounced modernist tendencies, such as Alexander Tcherepnin, Bohuslav Martinů, Alexander Tansman, Arthur Louriė and Roman Vlad. He also made a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist, giving recitals in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and elsewhere: his piano works, most of which he performed himself, give a vivid idea of his technical skills. In Lithuania, Bacevičius established himself as a leading pianist, composer, teacher and lecturer, a passionate advocate of the latest tendencies in music. His Poème électrique for orchestra,1 for example, the premiere of which he conducted in Kaunas in 1934, is a strident and defiant essay in the ‘machinist’ aesthetic then in vogue. (Its kin are Mossolov’s Iron Foundry, Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Martinů’s La Bagarre.)


Bacevičius was one of those most directly responsible for the fact that, alone of the Baltic countries, it was Lithuania which joined the International Society for Contemporary Music, and he became the Chair of the ISCM’s Lithuanian Section. He was on tour in Argentina in 1939 when the Germans invaded Lithuania, rendering him an exile. After performing in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, he moved to the USA in 1940 and lived mainly in New York, continuing to give recitals (including several at Carnegie Hall) but mainly supporting himself by teaching, both privately and, at various times, at New York Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn Conservatory and the Long Island Music Institute.


The last thirty years of Bacevičius’ life were a struggle for recognition. Though resident in the USA he was stateless: he failed in several attempts to obtain US citizenship and in the post-war years was in danger of deportation. He was almost the only performer of his works; he tried, but failed, to gain the interest of Leopold Stokowski in his orchestral compositions, such as the relatively straightforward Symphony No. 2, della Guerra, dedicated to Grażyna Bacewicz.2 After the War, the visionary and avant-garde nature of Bacevičius’ music rendered it simply unperformable in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, and it set him apart from other exiled Lithuanian musicians, who looked to their native folklore for inspiration. A combative personality, Bacevičius was not one to take adversity and failure lying down. The surviving correspondence with his sister Grażyna and elder brother Kęstutis (also a noted pianist, and eventually rector of Łódź Conservatory) shows that he remained painfully alienated in America, bitter at his failure to achieve performances, contemptuous of the conservatism of the most popular US composers and of their dismissal of the achievements of their European contemporaries.3


Bacevičius considered himself primarily an orchestral composer: he wrote six symphonies, four piano concertos, a violin concerto, two ballets and several other orchestral works. He also wrote a short opera (The Priestess, 1929), four string quartets, a large number of pieces for solo piano and a significant body of organ music. Bacevičius came to consider Schoenberg’s twelve-note music as too restricting and out-dated, regarding himself instead as a successor to Scriabin, André Jolivet and Varèse. He also rejected the serialism of the post-war European avant-garde as doctrinaire and dogmatic, ‘forgetting that music is more than just dry mathematics’.4 He also, after some experiments with chance procedures, rejected the equally fashionable aleatoricism of the 1960s as a method that ‘offends the principle of creative perfection’.5 Bacevičius advocated instead a music that responded spontaneously to the free play of feeling and imagination.


He identified five periods in his compositional development. An early period up to 1926, marked by the influence of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Scriabin, was followed by the period 1926–40 in which he developed an idiom of atonal expressionism, and adumbrated his ideal of ‘cosmic music’. As Ona Narbutienė has observed,6


By ‘cosmos’ Bacevičius meant the inner cosmos of a human being, not cosmos in the sense of outer space; ‘cosmic music’ was therefore the expression of a human being’s inner spiritual universe and a further stage in the evolution of atonal music.


Bacevičius considered his Poème électrique (1932) and Piano Concerto No. 1 (Sur les thèmes lituaniens, 1929)7 representative of this second period, as was the Cosmic Poem (1928) scored for a gigantic orchestra of 180 performers. Gabrielius Alekna quotes from the undated manuscript of a lecture by Bacevičius (written in English) in which the composer states that


The creation of a cosmic music isn’t at all an escape from the humanism, from the general current of . . . our epoch. On the contrary, the search for this cosmic music is the search for our own Universe, which is unknown to us, but is widely open to our artistic and scientific exploration. The avant-gardists who are using astronomic maps in order to create a cosmic music, as well as electronic composers, are deceiving themselves, because they are dealing with an exterior Universe. I am using graphical diagrams, however, they serve me only as symbols for the creation of a cosmic music, which I am searching for, not in the exterior Universe, but in my own inner Universe [italics in original], in which I see a road toward the highest perfection, highest Light of Wisdom and spiritual expression. … Subconsciousness is the source of unlimited ideas.8


Bacevičius’ phraseology recalls that of Edgard Varèse, one of the composers he most admired, who said that the title of his Amériques meant ‘the unknown […] new worlds on this planet, in outer space, and in the minds of man’, and that his Déserts evoked not only physical deserts but ‘also this distant inner space which no telescope can reach, where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude’.9


Bacevičius described his third period (from 1940 to the early 1950s) as a time of compromise, in which to some extent he shifted back towards traditional tonality and form, with a certain neo-classical element: clearly this was partly to make his works more palatable in the USA. The Second Symphony, whose idiom approximately parallels Honegger and Antheil, is an early representative of this period. Finally, since compromise was not getting him anywhere, he returned in the early 1950s wholeheartedly to his dissonant, atonal style and the vision of ‘cosmic music’, developing both in new directions. Representative of this fourth period are the Sixth Symphony, Cosmique (1960) and the orchestral work Graphique of 1964.10 He foresaw a fifth period in which ‘cosmic music’ would obtain its culminating expression, but death intervened in 1970 before this stage could begin.


Several of his series of works – the symphonies, the concertos, the Poèmes for solo piano – span several or all of the four periods. One of the most important series, from this point of view, is the sequence of seven keyboard works that Bacevičius entitled Mots (‘Words’). Five of these are for solo piano, one for organ, and one for two pianos; the first four date from Bacevičius’ second creative period and the last three from the fourth, so it is probably fair to say that all the Mots are associated with the more radical phases of his evolution. Typically they are single-movement pieces (No. 7 is the only exception) between five and thirteen minutes in length, and distinguished by a high degree of motivic and harmonic integration. The evidence of Bacevičius’ recital programmes suggests that he only performed the first, second and sixth Mots in public.11 I have found no explanation for his choice of title, which clearly meant much to him as he returned to it repeatedly. But in view of his known attraction to esoteric and mystical thought, and to the content of the works themselves, I understand these ‘Words’ as an oracular or prophetic utterance.12


The Premier Mot, Op. 18 (Pirmas žodis in Lithuanian), for solo piano, dates from 1933 and was published by Universal Edition, Vienna in 1938.13 Though clearly stylistically still a somewhat early work, it establishes characteristics that are maintained throughout most if not all of the Mots: a restless, mercurial mood, constantly changing time-signatures and phrase-lengths, a dissonant harmonic language that refuses to establish an overall tonal centre, and an unusual wealth of thematic and motivic ideas for a work of modest dimensions. Bacevičius’ radicalism is apparent from the first in his highly chromatic language: a chromaticism akin to the ‘atonal’ piano works of Schoenberg (especially his Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11) and the late sonatas and Poèmes of Skryabin. It might be expected that Skryabin would be a dominating influence on the Premier Mot, but its harmonic language, with stepwise chromatic ascents and descents, and chains of fifths and fourths both perfect and augmented, more resembles the piano works of the post-Skryabin generation of composers, such as Roslavets and Lourié.


The work is not, in fact, wholly without a tonal centre, or rather two: the massive octave-and-fifth chord of E with which the piece begins is followed in the next bar by a weaker statement of C. These fundamentals, often much obscured by chromatic embellishment, are in competition throughout much of the piece, with C becoming the dominant force just before the final bars (it is also the fundamental of the acrid final chord). Formally the Premier Mot is in a clear ternary form, with an initial Allegro vivace, a middle section beginning in a calm Andante cantabile, with a faster toccata-style central episode, and a return to the Allegro vivace for a transformed reprise of the opening section.


The Deuxième Mot, Op. 21 (Antras žodis), was composed the following year, 1934, and is the only one of the series for organ; it is also, in performance duration, the longest of all the Mots. It was not published until 2004.14 It seems to have been Bacevičius’ first work for organ, but was one of no less than seven organ compositions that he wrote in August 1934 and performed at an all-Bacevičius concert in the Kaunas Conservatoire in December of the same year. Perhaps because of the nature of the instrument, the Deuxième Mot contains rather more triadic writing than in the piano works, but – even when they seem to denote points of arrival – the triads are not used in terms of traditional functional tonality.


The work opens with a slow chromatic descent in several voices – a gesture that recurs many times, always in different forms, throughout the piece. The semitonal shadings and equivocations create a sense of searching, a groping towards possible revelation. The mood is not so much devotional as mystical, and the harmonies soon begin to sound like those of Messiaen’s early (and not so early) organ music.15 The piece falls into a number of sections, each arrived at in somewhat improvisatory fashion. Themes aspire imitatively from the bass; there are flurries of quick figuration, strange oriental-sounding phrases and detached, jabbing motifs. By any standards this is very adventurous organ writing for its date. Eventually an Allegro section establishes a new texture of pulsing repeated notes, alternating with a helter-skelter Leggiero toccata for the manuals only; a coda (harking back to an earlier section) culminates rather surprisingly in a majestic F major triad.


The next four Mots are all for solo piano. The Troisième Mot, Op. 27 (Trečias žodis), was composed in Kaunas in June 1935, but remained unperformed and unpublished until 2006. Writing to his sister Grazyńa in 1961, Bacevičius stated that the ‘Third and Fourth Mots […] are atonal throughout, very good and strong […. They] contain plenty of atonal riches, extraordinary variety […]’.16 In fact, of the seven Mots, No. 3 is the one that most resembles a keyboard toccata, and that has the most regular, almost neo-classical, rhythmic profile. It puts one in mind to some extent of the keyboard works of Prokofiev or Leo Ornstein. The single movement divides into three main sections. An opening Allegro molto seems to begin in mid-flight with a torrent of semiquaver figuration and something of Skryabin’s volante mood. A more mechanically strutting element then establishes the quaver as the basic unit before the music subsides to an Andantino central section where groups of staccato quavers are played off against an oriental-sounding scrap of tune. The ensuing Allegro vivace rounds off the piece with a vigorous development of the quaver patterns, without recurring to the semiquaver figuration of the first section. This lively work ends fff on a resounding triad of B flat major.


The Quatrième Mot, Op. 31 (Ketvirtas žodis), also written in Kaunas, dates from August 1938; the last of the Mots to be composed before Bacevičius’ enforced exile, it remained unperformed until premiered by Gabrielius Alekna in a lecture-performance at the Juilliard School, New York on 22 December 2005. Bacevičius spoke of this work as an example of ‘new modernism’, characterised by angular rhythms, varied articulation and a certain primitivism in its use of accents; he acknowledged both Prokofiev and Stravinsky as influences. These comments notwithstanding, the piece stands somewhat apart from the other Mots by reason of its metrical stability: it is entirely cast in bars of 4/4 and 2/4. This work has been exhaustively analysed by Gabrielius Alekna,17 who points to the composer’s use of a ‘harmonically neutral chordal structure’, in this case an ‘all-permeating augmented triad with and added ninth’ which allows him throughout the piece to establish a ‘binary tonal center’ of ‘two tonal centers a half-step apart’.18 This binary tonal centre, which emerges gradually in the course of the piece, consists the combination of E and E flat.


The whole work, in fact, is a palmary example of Bacevičius’ skill at concealing or avoiding tonal definition through many different devices, including the extensive use of augmented triads, tritones and the bodily transposition of various sections. There are four principal section, plus a coda. The opening section is a tonally indistinct, floating, somewhat Skryabinesque Andante. There follows a more melodically focussed Andante cantabile which becomes more withdrawn and mystical in expression. A busily clattering Allegro makes for a very short third section, leading into the dance-like fourth section, Vivace. Although the thematic material of the four sections seems superficially separate and self-contained, the harmonic language is organically developed throughout, creating a strong sense of unity to the piece.


The Cinquième Mot, Op. 59 (Penktas žodis), was written in 1956 in New York, and does not appear to have been published in the composer’s lifetime, even though it exists in what seems to be a publisher’s proof.19 Its date puts it towards the beginning of the fourth period of Bacevičius’ creative development. The composer himself apparently dated his return to ‘cosmic’ music to this same year, 1956, though some scholars return to ‘cosmic’ music to this same year, 1956, though some scholars (Ona Narbutienė and Gabrielius Alekna, for example20) think it was a more gradual development starting a few years earlier. Insofar as some passages have a fairly pronounced ‘tonal’ feeling, the Cinquième Mot should probably be considered a transitional work, but it is a remarkable little piece, very taut and internally consistent. The mercurial, restless shifts of mood, dynamic and register are even more frequent than in the earlier Mots, and there is a new element in Bacevičius’s use of a wealth of rapid repeated-note figures.


It begins Allegro moderato in a kind of dance-measure that soon comes to sound like a fevered tarantella, piling up a large number of disparate motifs that are nevertheless spontaneous inventions within the overall onrush of the music. A central section starts Andantino with a halting rhythm in the right hand and a sinuous theme in the left; high, bell-like chords accompany a more romantic-sounding augmentation of this theme, and a development of the Allegro moderato intrudes before the Andantino returns to round this section off. A shortened reprise of the tarentella music leads into a whirlwind Prestissimo coda that seems designed to provoke a storm of audience applause. Perhaps the most compressed of all the Mots, the Cinquième has a kind of brilliant, flinty bravura that is undeniably fascinating.


The Sixième Mot, Op. 72 (Šeštas žodis), dates from 1963 and was the only one of the series to have much currency in Bacevičius’s last years. Not only did he play it in public, he recorded it in 1966 (on a Delta Corporation LP), and it was published by Mercury Music Corporation, New York, the following year. Here Bacevičius’ late radicalism is in full flower. The restless ebb and flow of metre and phrasing of the previous works of the series now issue in a work written entirely without bar-lines, where the weight of the beat must be felt by the performer. (In other aspects Sixième Mot is completely notated.) The harmony is yet more dissonant, the lines more angular, and extremes of register – and rapid movements between them – are used constantly. At the same time the textures are opened up and aerated to create a clean, delicate, filigree sound-world. Much of the work proceeds in more or less two-part counterpoint. But the mercurial, volatile play of figures and motifs is forever unpredictable. One might compare this sense of the music remaking itself from phrase to phrase with the late piano works of Stefan Wolpe; but the way the piece seems to be exhaustively working out the implications of its own pitch-content is more as if Bacevičius might have heard some Milton Babbitt and was intent on beating him at his own serial game. Resonant chordal trills are a feature of this piece, which falls very broadly into an introductory Lento, a spiky Allegretto, a haunting Grave and a concluding Allegro con fuoco that eventually shimmers off into the highest register, like a disappearing wisp of smoke.


The final work of the series, the Septième Mot, Op. 73 (Septintas žodis), was composed in New York in 1966. Alone of the Mots, it is scored for two pianos (Bacevičius’ only work for this combination), and is the only one of the seven to have more than a single movement – in this case, three. Like the Sixième Mot it dispenses with bar-lines, though there is nothing aleatoric about its rhythmic structure, all rhythms being precisely notated, with occasional dotted lines to stress the exact synchronisation of the two parts. Moreover, it seems to be the only Mot intended for performers other than Bacevičius himself. On the first page of the manuscript there appears a (cancelled) dedication ‘To Judith and Doris Lang’.21 The Lang sisters, to whom Bacevičius gave a copy of the score after one of their concerts, towards the end of their piano-duo career,22 did not perform the work (was this why Bacevičius cancelled the dedication?); instead, as far as is known, the premiere was given in Vilnius in 1984, performed by Liuda and Kęstutis Grybauskai.


The piece maintains and carries forward the motivic and textural radicalism of the Sixième Mot and makes a fitting culmination to the whole series of works. The scoring for two pianos additionally allows Bacevičius to explore antiphonal effects and resonance and to fill, at times, the entire chromatic spectrum. Occasional massive chording gives the piece an epic quality, though in general it has the textural delicacy and elegance of the Sixième Mot. This is a real bravura display-piece for the two-piano medium, every page teeming with imaginative detail. The exchanges between the pianos crackle with energy, moving swiftly from drama to lyricism to sardonic wit as they bandy motivic quips and pungent, epigrammatic phrases. Noteworthy features are the use in all three movements of rapid repeated-note patterns, and clangorous chordal writing that seems to echo Messiaen: not the early Messiaen referenced in the Deuxième Mot, but the late, near-contemporary Messiaen of the Catalogue d’oiseaux.


The three-movement design begins with a fiery, motivically dense and texturally kaleidoscopic Allegro moderato. The central Larghetto misterioso, with its long-held chords and more expansive lines, forms a relatively still point of reflection. The final Allegro con fuoco, kicked off by a sforzato twelve-note cluster from Piano II, provides a brilliant and often humorous conclusion. Given his stylistic isolation (both from his homeland and much contemporary US music), Bacevičius’ achievement in forging a genuinely individual idiom, and creating music of such uncompromising radicalism, energy and – yes – elegance seems all the more impressive.*


 © Malcolm MacDonald, 2011


*I have been indebted throughout this note to the recent work of several scholars on Bacevičius’ life and works, notably Gabrielius Alekna, Ona Narbutienė and Krzysztof Droba.


Malcolm MacDonald is the author of The Symphonies of Havergal Brian (three vols., Kahn & Averill, London, 1974, 1978 and 1983) and the editor of the first two volumes of Havergal Brian on Music (Toccata Press, London, 1985 and 2009); further volumes are in preparation. His other writings include books on Brahms, Foulds, Schoenberg, Ronald Stevenson and Edgard Varèse.



Notes and references:


1. Recorded by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vytautas Lukočius on Toccata Classics tocc 0049.

2. Also recorded by Vytautas Lukočius and the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra on Toccata Classics tocc 0049.

3. On this period cf. especially Krzysztof Droba, ‘Vytautas Bacevičius in America, or an Artist in the Cage’, in Rūta Stanevičiūtė and Veronika Janatjeva (eds.), Vytautas Bacevičius in Context, Lithuanian Composers’ Union, Vilnius, 2009, pp. 119–34.

4. Vytautas Bacevičius, ‘Laikas neina atgal’ (‘Time is not Turning Backwards’), Draugas, No. 19, October 1963; quoted in Ona Narbutienė, ‘Vytautas Bacevičius’, A Return of the Restless Arist: A Centennial Celebration of Vytautas Bacevičius (programme-book for the centenary concerts in Kaunas and Vilnius), Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Vilnius, 2005.

5. Letter to the composer Vytautas Montvila, 15 November 1968; quoted in ibid.

6. Booklet notes to Toccata Classics tocc 0049, p. 2.

7. Both recorded on Toccata Classics tocc 0049, with the the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vytautas Lukočius in the Poème électrique and Martynas Staškus in the First Piano Concerto, where the soloist is Aidas Puodžiukas.

8. Bacevičius, ‘Contemporary Music in Europe (illustrated lecture)’, quoted in Gabrielius Alekna, doctoral dissertation on Bacevičius’ unpublished piano music for the Juilliard School of Music. Ellipses and English grammar as transcribed by Alekna.

9. Widely quoted since by many authors, with various wordings (because self-quoted by Varèse himself in interviews and correspondence both French and English), this famous pronouncement appears to originate with a hand-written note he made to the score of the original version of Amériques. Cf. Wolfgang Rathert, ‘Worlds Without End: Amériques’ in Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann (eds.), Edgard Varèse Composer Sound Sculptor Visionary, Paul Sacher Foundation/Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006, p. 138.

10. Both recorded on Toccata Classics tocc 0049, with the the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vytautas Lukočius.

11. Gabrielius Alekna, dissertation, Appendix III.

12. I do not believe there is a connection with the Seven Last Words of Christ, as illustrated musically by Joseph Haydn, James MacMillan and others. There is no evidence that Bacevičius, who seems to have had little interest in conventional Christianity, planned the Mots as a cycle: they are individual works, and the fact that they total seven is probably coincidence.

13. It was republished in 2005 as part of Vytautas Bacevičius Piano Works compiled and edited by Jurgis Karnavičius, ‘Lithuanian Classical Series’, Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Vilnius, 2006, pp. 11–26.

14. As part of Vytautas Bacevičius Organ Works: The First Complete Edition edited by Jūratė Landsbergytė, ‘Lithuanian Classical Series’, Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Vilnius, 2004, pp. 1–30.

15. It is possible Bacevičius knew Messiaen’s Le banquêt céleste (1928), though the Deuxième Mot is a far more varied and active piece than that inertly glowing monolith.

16. Letter to Grażyna Bacewicz, 9 February 1961; quoted in Gabrielius Alekna, Preface to Vytautas Bacevičius Piano Works: The First Edition, Volume One, ‘Lithuanian Classical Series’, Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Vilnius, 2006, p. 9.

17. Dissertation, chapter 5; published in revised form as ‘On the Interrelatedness in Vytautas Bacevičius’ Musical Language’, Lietuvos Muzikologija (‘Lithuanian Musicology’), 2010, pp. 39–52. The other work analysed is Bacevičius’ Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 53 (1952).

18. Ibid., p. 40.

19. Gabrielius Alekna, Preface to Vytautas Bacevičius Piano Works, p. 9. The proof names Mercury Music as the publisher, and Beekman Music, Inc., New York as copyright holder.

20. Cf. especially Chapter 4 of Gabrielius Alekna’s Juilliard dissertation.

21. The sisters Judith and Doris Lang (now the composer Judith Lang Zaimont and the conductor Doris Lang Kosloff, Artistic Director of Connecticut Concert Opera and chief of the opera program at Hartt College) were active as a piano duo in the 1960s. They made their Carnegie Hall debut as teenagers in 1963 with the Little Orchestra Society in Saint-Saens’s Carnival des Animaux; during the mid-1960s they were semi-regulars on NBC’s The Mitch Miller Show. Their 1965 LP, ‘Concert for Two Pianos’ (Golden Crest Records) includes the first US recordings of the Poulenc’s four-hand Sonate¸ a suite by Robert Casadesus and Leland Thompson’s Two Masques, plus standard repertoire by Milhaud, Arensky and Rachmaninov.

22. E-mail from Judith Zaimont to the writer, dated 1 September 2011.

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