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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 18 (2012) No. 1

Published 2016

Seconda pratica: Counterpoint and Politics

Ulrich Siegele*

1. The Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy Revisited

2. The Inquisition Threatens the Composer

3. Harmonia propria as a Universal Truth

4. Artusi Intensifies His Attacks

5. Monteverdi’s Tour de Force Reply

6. New Ways of Introducing Dissonance

7 Redefining the Compositional Fabric

8 Concluding Remarks


Original Publication: “Cruda Amarilli, oder: Wie ist Monteverdis ‘seconda pratica’ satztechnisch zu verstehen?,” Claudio Monteverdi. Vom Madrigal zur Monodie, Musik-Konzepte 83/84 (1994)

This is only music; how must a world be wholly fashioned in which even questions of counterpoint betoken irreconcilable conflicts.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik

1. The Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy Revisited

1.1 Seconda pratica: In its day, the topic couched in this catchphrase triggered a heated debate that has in turn presented a multitude of questions to later scholars. In returning to the so-called Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy, I wish to discuss two aspects: first, the social context in which the debate took place, and second, the points of compositional technique on which it turned. By social context I mean in particular the political context, which, given the conditions of Monteverdi’s day and geographical location, can only mean the context of ecclesiastical policy, namely, the interest taken in this topic by the Papacy and the Church it represents. By points of compositional technique I refer to the structural redefinition of the musical fabric, the topic for which this catchphrase stands.

1.2 These two aspects do not run separately side by side; they mutually interact. In this sense, my paper is a tribute to the Frankfurt School and Theodor W. Adorno, though it pays its tribute more to the question he raised concerning the interaction between music and context—a question that has occupied me ever since. On the other hand, I feel that Adorno has left us with the task of providing a more precise answer to this question than he did himself, anchoring the answer in the music and pinpointing exactly how the two aspects interact. It is generally assumed that the social context has pride of place and influences the composer’s actions. In this case, however, the initiative proceeded from the composer’s actions, which provoked a reaction from the social context. What fascinates me about Monteverdi and this issue is the possibility that a composer can intervene not only in the history of composition but also, and especially, in his social surroundings.

2. The Inquisition Threatens the Composer

2.1 My thesis is as follows: according to Giovanni Maria Artusi, Monteverdi’s treatment of dissonance challenged the authoritative doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and was therefore a matter to be taken up by the Inquisition.

2.2 The connection with the Inquisition was made plain by Artusi himself. The title page of his first publication of 1600 contains, at the place where the publisher’s signet normally appears, the coat of arms of a cardinal.[1] The name of the cardinal is spelled out in the dedication: Pompeo Arigoni.[2] Born in Rome in 1552, Arigoni worked as a lawyer and administrator in the Curia and is listed in 1589 as an auditor of the Sacred Roman Rota, which made him a judge in the Church’s highest tribunal. He was elevated to the rank of cardinal on June 5, 1596, and in early 1598 he belonged to the most important of the nine general congregations of the Church, a congregation headed by the pope himself. Arigoni was a member of the Holy Office, the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Two authors of the poems prefaced to the volume explicitly refer to this connection, certifying that Arigoni conquers and subdues the errors of this world and that he has received his high office for the purpose of purging the world of its error.[3]

2.3 This man of the cloth was part of the pope’s closest retinue when Clement VIII visited Ferrara from May 8 to November 26, 1598, to take possession of the vacant fiefdom.[4] At that time Artusi gave the cardinal a firm promise that he later fulfilled with his two ragionamenti, the two argumentative dialogues in his 1600 publication. In short, Artusi, as he proclaims in the very first sentence of his dedication, discussed the imperfections of modern music with Arigoni in Ferrara in 1598, and he was commissioned by that member of the Holy Office to proceed against those imperfections.

2.4 Artusi was a canon regular in his native city of Bologna, which had been part of the Papal States since the beginning of the century. He belonged to the Congregation of San Salvatore, which adhered to the Augustinian Rule and survives in the Canons Regular of the Lateran. His reliability in ecclesiastical matters was thus ensured. He was also competent in the subject at hand, for he had studied with Zarlino and published two books on the art of counterpoint that had recently been combined, revised, and reissued.[5] The second of these books deals with the particular area of counterpoint under discussion: the usefulness and application of dissonance. Artusi was thus well-qualified for his task; his very name stood surety for his authority in art and its utilization: et arte, et usu.[6]

2.5 In these circumstances, the Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy was not a detached musico-theoretical squabble in which two equal interlocutors exchanged their arguments on an equal footing. The two men were adversaries and pursued contrary interests; each had his own outlook on the matter. For this reason, the extant documents must not be read as statements limited solely to their subject matter. Rather, we must determine their intent and apply the rhetorical principle of relating them to the situation at hand.

2.6 Artusi stepped forward as public prosecutor; Monteverdi saw himself forced to draw up a line of defense against him. Artusi was concerned with coaxing a confession from Monteverdi—that his new method of composition was a moral error—and convincing him to recant. To accomplish this, he needed a verbal declaration from Monteverdi, for inquisitorial proceedings cannot be conducted on the basis of musical scores. Monteverdi therefore had to avoid presenting an objective declaration that might lead to his conviction, but he could not refuse outright to present such a declaration. Moreover, if he expressed himself in writing at all, he was well advised to make the conflict seem negligible and to emphasize the points on which he and Artusi agreed. The underlying critical structure of the controversy resides in the fact that Artusi acted with the backing of the Curia and the Congregation of the Inquisition, and thus from an unassailable position, whereas Monteverdi saw at least his professional and artistic existence at stake. In the final analysis, it was for him a matter of life or death.

3. Harmonia propria as a Universal Truth

3.1 What did Artusi refer to in his indictment? Where did he see an assault on the verities of the Roman Catholic Church? What was the objective basis of the controversy? To answer these questions, we must first outline three main points in Artusi’s musical view of the world. This view resided in a conviction that the only true compositional technique proceeds ineluctably from the only true philosophy, and the only true philosophy was the Aristotelian Scholasticism of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the Truth that Artusi defended, and he availed himself of its terminology.

3.2 The first point involves the demand for universal rules. Like any science and art, music has its proper rules which are grounded in Truth. These proper rules, grounded in Truth, impart order; to adhere to them is to approach perfection. Those who do not adhere to them work at random, which engenders confusion and leads to imperfection. The subtitle of Artusi’s book, “On the Imperfections of Modern Music,” thus takes aim at modern music’s alleged lack of rules, which is to say, at its departure from the basis of Truth.

3.3 The second point has to do with the relation between reason and the senses. Two adjudicators preside over Truth in music, in the harmonic discipline: the auditory faculty and human reason. The auditory faculty relates to materia, human reason to forma. The former receives perfection from the latter; accordingly, the verdict that the senses pronounce on a matter is rendered perfect by reason. It follows that the verdict on harmony cannot reside in the auditory faculty alone. Those who are satisfied entirely with the senses and pay no heed to reason are imperfect in their verdicts. They neglect forma, without which materia would be indeterminate and shapeless.

3.4 The third point involves the relation between consonance and dissonance. The auditory faculty relates to pitches, human reason to numerical ratios. These numerical ratios are the forme or formative causes of the intervals. Numerical ratios, or proportions, thus determine which interval is a consonance and which is a dissonance. It follows that consonance is antithetical to dissonance by nature, and vice versa. Harmony in the full sense of the term (harmonia propria) is the concord (concento) that results from the metrically regulated motion of parts in a texture consisting of more than two voices. Harmonia propria, or concento, is an exclusively consonant texture of three or more voices, note against note, whose Truth resides in certain numerical ratios.

3.5 Within this texture dissonances, which are defined by different proportions, are merely accidental. As consonances and dissonances are antithetical, they must not be treated in the same way. Consonances may be used freely and without any qualms in polyphonic textures, whether in leaps or in stepwise motion. Dissonances, on the other hand, being the antithesis of consonances, call for a different viewpoint. Experience, in which Truth is made manifest, has revealed the rules governing the treatment of dissonance. When dissonances are employed outside the bounds of these rules, in an absolute sense, they presume against the nature of consonance. This, however, is contrary to Nature and thus contrary to Truth.

3.6 For Artusi, the norm of any compositional fabric is harmonia propria or concento, the exclusively consonant note-against-note texture. This norm is grounded in numerical ratios and is therefore true. Dissonances may be added to this substance only as accidents in accordance with codified rules. Those who treat dissonances in violation of these codified rules act solely for the sake of effect and are beholden entirely to sensory perception. Such a person is a nominalist. Artusi raised his objection in the name of the moderate realism of Scholastic philosophy.

4. Artusi Intensifies His Attacks

4.1 In order to obtain a confession and a recantation from Monteverdi, Artusi escalated his argument step by step. Even before publishing his first book in 1600, so he argues, he had written letters to Monteverdi full of courtesy and grace. But Monteverdi, instead of replying in the same vein, had his answer supplied by a third party.[7] Artusi then turned to the public. But he assumed an air of high-mindedness. As he stressed in his preface to the reader, he argued in generalities without naming anyone in particular. It was not his intention to strike at an individual, but solely to seek the Truth.[8] He avoided mentioning Monteverdi’s name and merely discussed seven passages from one of his unpublished madrigals without so much as disclosing its underlying text.

4.2 As Monteverdi continued to maintain his silence, Artusi raised the temperature of the debate by switching to another literary genre. For his first book he chose the form of a dialogue between two friends, the one an authority on music, the other a musical amateur. The amateur is affected by modern music; he has listened to it and heard some things about it. But he allows himself as a matter of course to be guided onto the right path by the expertise of his interlocutor—just as was expected of Monteverdi. But Monteverdi continued to remain silent. Two and a half years later Artusi then followed his first book with a second in the form of an epistolary exchange.[9] Now it is not two bystanders discussing a subject but Artusi himself and a correspondent who, endowed with the unflattering name of “Obtuse,” is best classified as a figment of Artusi’s literary imagination. The exchange took place directly between upholders of the two antithetical positions and ended with the stigmatization of the incorrigible dullard. Although Monteverdi is expressly distinguished from Artusi’s epistolary correspondent, he was left in no doubt as to where he stood and what was in store for him.

4.3 Besides the composer’s obstinate silence, Artusi may also have felt provoked to adopt stronger measures by the fact that Monteverdi had risen to become maestro di capella at the court of Mantua in 1601-02, for the intent of his first book was surely to put an end to Monteverdi’s professional career. Moreover, Monteverdi had by now coined the catchphrase seconda pratica in reference to himself. Hoping to disarm him of this defensive weapon even before he had wielded it in public, Artusi had his correspondent introduce the catchphrase as a collective term for a group of composers.

5. Monteverdi’s Tour de Force Reply

5.1 It was at this point that Monteverdi declared his colors and replied on his own behalf. But rather than confronting his accuser directly, he kept him at a distance. With a postscript to his fifth madrigal book of 1605 he addressed, not Artusi, but the educated reader.[10] Nonetheless, Artusi is the primary addressee, for both the terminology and the line of argument in Monteverdi’s letter correspond exactly to what Artusi had put forth.

5.2 Monteverdi begins by repudiating Artusi’s accusations that he had sought pretexts to avoid replying. The fulfillment of his duties at court, he maintains, had to take precedence over a reply to the churchman, whose objections relate, in any case, entirely to trifles. He then immediately proceeds to confront his opponent’s crucial argument, namely, that he composes his pieces at random. Monteverdi firmly maintains that his music in general, and his treatment of dissonance in particular, are both based on rules. Anything based on rules has order, and anything that has order has perfection. The title and the contents of Artusi’s books are therefore baseless as far as they concern Monteverdi.

5.3 That said, the rules that Monteverdi follows are not the same as those of his opponent. Rather, he makes use of a seconda pratica, a different modus operandi. This question of modus operandi relates, like the entire discussion up to this point, to the treatment of consonance and dissonance. In this respect, he has a different viewpoint from the one set down by Artusi’s teacher Zarlino. But this different viewpoint does not imply that there is no longer any common ground between them. Monteverdi rejects Artusi’s implicit insinuation that he, like the anonymous correspondent, indulges in crude and mindless materialism. His manner of composing is not designed simply to satisfy the auditory faculty: it satisfies both reason and the senses, just as Artusi demands.

5.4 Monteverdi then makes clear that the catchphrase seconda pratica stems not from Artusi’s correspondent but from himself, and is thus a self-designation. He ends by claiming to build on the principles of Truth. We might take this to refer, in a general sense, to Artusi’s contention that he alone is concerned with seeking Truth. But it is more likely that Monteverdi’s famous dictum relates specifically to compositional technique, in which case it acquires special piquancy by appearing at the end of the letter. The basis of Truth in composition is, according to Artusi, harmonia propria, the exclusively consonant note-against-note texture. Monteverdi claims to build on this same compositional fabric and emphatically acknowledges the foundation that Artusi demands of him.

5.5 In short, Monteverdi stresses the points he holds in common with his opponent. Where they differ is not in the fact that dissonances can be introduced into an exclusively consonant texture, but in the manner in which they are introduced. Here, too, the two adversaries agree that this must proceed in accordance with rules. The difference lies entirely in how these rules are worded. But since the rules governing the treatment of dissonance are based on experience, it is possible to bring into play an experience other than the one sanctified by tradition, and thus another viewpoint, and to prove it to be true. In sum, we are dealing merely with a seconda pratica, a different practice, and not a newly constituted species of music aimed at supplanting the Istitutioni of Zarlino, who may be seen as the authoritative theorist in line with the Council of Trent.

6. New Ways of Introducing Dissonance

6.1 Monteverdi’s defense is a diplomatic tour de force. It minimizes the conflict as far as possible. He also announced his intention to produce a theoretical treatise which, in the event, he avoided writing altogether. After all, he did not need to answer the question about rules in detail, for he had already provided a more comprehensive answer than words can possibly convey, and he had done so in a way far more to his liking: namely, through the deeds of his compositions, which he published along with the letter. At the head of the volume he defiantly placed the very piece that had drawn Artusi’s censure: Cruda Amarilli.[11]

6.2 This brings us finally to the question of the piece’s compositional fabric. A technical analysis reveals the extraordinary care that Monteverdi lavished on every detail of his madrigal. Not a single note is left unsubstantiated by close deliberation. Just as he claimed, nothing has been done at random. The elaboration of Parts I and II (mm. 1–25, and 26–43) indeed proceeds from the structural foundation of an exclusively consonant note-against-note texture. The harmonia propria, the concento, can be reconstructed and shown to be musically meaningful. Yet it is not the external genesis of the piece that concerns us, but its interior structure.

6.3 Two devices in the elaboration of this structural basis can be discerned. The first is pitch substitution, that is, the replacement of chordal tones in the basic texture by nonharmonic tones. Though usually dissonant, these nonharmonic tones may also be consonant, namely, when a fifth is replaced by a sixth. In terms of compositional technique, there are two ways of justifying these substitute pitches, each of which is sufficient by itself, though they are often used in combination. One is to put them into a stepwise melodic context; the other is to mutually combine two voices in parallel imperfect consonances, namely thirds or sixths. The second method shifts the notes of the basic texture to another point in the metrical structure, whether earlier or later. The shift may involve every voice in the texture or be limited to isolated voices. In the latter case, it leads to a temporary breakdown of the metrical coordination in the overall texture; the fabric gains an internal mobility and an ability to displace levels, albeit on a limited scale. Occasionally, standard diminutions are added.

6.4 In Parts I and II of his madrigal, Monteverdi demonstrated the potential of his new procedure for elaborating an exclusively consonant note-against-note texture. By choosing a different standpoint for relating dissonances to consonances, he created new rules for the introduction of dissonances in a consonant texture. In Part III (mm. 44–67), he shows the advantage that the new procedure has to offer when faced with textures of pervasive imitation. Obviously, any attempt to reconstruct an exclusively consonant note-against-note texture from one of pervasive imitation has little chance of succeeding. But it is possible to identify the harmonic foundation of the imitative texture and the compositional quality of each note relative to that foundation. Viewed in this light, Part III represents an advance on Parts I and II: in the latter, the consonant texture serves as a concrete frame of reference, whereas in the former the harmonies function as a basis only in the imagination.

6.5 Compared to Parts I and II, which are based on an exclusively consonant note-against-note texture, Part III differs by virtue of its texture of pervasive imitation. Owing to the manipulation of thematic subjects, the justification of dissonances by incorporating them into a stepwise melodic context had to be expanded. Now the dissonances are justified by thematic correspondence. It is thematic correspondence that justifies the entrance of a subject on a nonharmonic tone, whether consonant or dissonant, even when it proceeds from a rest. It even justifies the unprepared appearance of a second-inversion triad or the downward leap of a minor seventh. The advantage that the new procedure has to offer in pervasive imitation lies in its expanded possibilities for employing thematic subjects within the compositional fabric. These expanded possibilities are rooted in the fact that the compositional qualities of the notes in a subject, whether consonant or dissonant, are not predefined, and thus immutable, but may be interpreted at any given moment.

7 Redefining the Compositional Fabric

7.1 Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli is an exceptional piece, a piece pushed to the limits. Read as a musico-theoretical text, it is, at first glance, a compendium of the seconda pratica, exemplifying its compositional possibilities and devices on a scale and at a level of consistency that remain concealed if we limit ourselves to Artusi’s examples. For Artusi chose only those examples that would add the greatest weight to his polemical argument.

7.2 Yet the new compositional possibilities and devices are not, as Monteverdi alleges, purely a matter of practice: they have a theoretical basis, a principle. It is precisely this that makes them new. The piece also provides information on this new basis, this new principle. When a chordal tone is replaced by a dissonant tone in the elaboration of an exclusively consonant note-against-note texture, the reality of that texture is suspended, even if only for an instant. This is the case even when the original chordal tone is replaced by a consonance. Still, although the reality of the consonant texture is suspended, it retains its validity as a frame of reference. Only in relation to this frame of reference is the actual texture intelligible. This distinction between actual texture and frame of reference increases when the composer makes use of the possibility of shifting metrical locations. The distinction receives a new quality under the conditions of pervasive imitation, i.e., the manipulation of thematic subjects. In this case, it is no longer possible to extract the frame of reference for the actual texture, since that frame of reference exists only in the imagination. Even so, the actual texture is intelligible only in relation to that frame of reference.

7.3 It is this separation between the actual written and sounding texture and the unwritten, soundless frame of reference without which the actual texture would be unintelligible, that constitutes Monteverdi’s new principle. The compositional fabric, which until then had been unified, was split into two layers: a melodic foreground and a harmonic background, or a harmonic foundation and its melodic representation. Previously, the coherence of the compositional fabric resided in the contrapuntal coordination of individual voices with each of the others. Now this contrapuntal coordination can be suspended within fixed limits. Once the coordination of the voices is dissolved, the coherence of the fabric resides in the relation of each separate voice to the frame of reference that all the voices have in common: the harmonic background. The justification of the texture is shifted from the way the voices relate to each other to the way they relate to the harmonic background.

7.4 This separation of the compositional fabric into two layers—the harmonic background and the melodic foreground, creating a sort of musical depth perception—was the most incisive change in the nature of composition since the standardization of polyphony. It was a revolution that laid the cornerstone for the history of composition over the next three hundred years and beyond. Monteverdi’s seconda pratica was more than just a new practice: it was a compositional manifesto of historical import.

8 Concluding Remarks

8.1 I have attempted to obtain new insight from the Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy by positing two basic methodological assumptions. First, I have included the context of church policy and its underlying philosophy of Scholasticism as essential components of the controversy. Second, when discussing Monteverdi’s madrigal Cruda Amarilli, I did not limit myself to Artusi’s chosen examples and the main terms of his argument, but focused on the compositional fabric as a whole. The challenge that this fabric posed for the policies and philosophy of the Church was thus placed center stage. I have also devoted my attention to the forms in which the controversy was conducted, as a vehicle for, and an expression of, the points at issue. I have related Monteverdi’s letter in his fifth book of madrigals point by point to Artusi’s terms of reference. Owing to shortage of time, in this paper I have pursued the controversy only as far as it focuses on the original question—the relation between consonance and dissonance—and have left out the later extension to the aesthetic domain, although it has dominated reception to the present day.

8.2 This paper summarizes the main theses of my study “Cruda Amarilli, oder: Wie ist Monteverdis ‘seconda pratica’ satztechnisch zu verstehen?” (Cruda Amarilli, or: How is Monteverdi’s “seconda pratica” to be understood in terms of compositional technique?), which originally appeared in Musik-Konzepte 83/84: Claudio Monteverdi. Vom Madrigal zur Monodie (Munich, 1994), pp. 31–102.[12] The study, which also extends the bibliographic references, has lost none of its relevance in the meantime. It combines approaches from philology, compositional technique, music theory, and history in four separate sections. The first section examines the dispute between Artusi and Monteverdi for the light it sheds on compositional technique. The second offers an analysis of Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli and compares it to other well-known settings of this poem. The compositional devices employed in this madrigal form the object of the third section, which relates Parts I and II of the piece note by note to the underlying harmonia propria of the exclusively consonant note-against-note texture and reduces the pervasive imitation of Part III to its harmonic foundation. In this way, the madrigal’s two-tiered design is laid bare, as are the fundamental, mainly cadential harmonic progressions on which it is based. The fourth section defines Monteverdi’s new principle of compositional structure and ends with a consideration of the controversy in the context of church politics.[13]

8.3 I owe the 2009 Frankfurt Monteverdi symposium a debt of thanks for two additions. Georg Beck reminded me that in 1600, nine months before the dedication of Artusi’s first book, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Here, too, as with Galileo Galilei later, matters hinged on the question of the world system. It would seem that Monteverdi’s restructuring of the compositional fabric was viewed and distrusted on the same level. In any event, Monteverdi had been given a warning. Jeffrey Kurtzman’s paper in the present volume emphasizes the peculiarity of the dedication of the Mass and the Vespers of 1610 to Pope Paul V. Even if Monteverdi was denied an audience with the pope and did not receive his blessing, he had at least one-upped Artusi. True, in 1600 Artusi was able to place the coat of arms of a cardinal on his title page, but ten years later Monteverdi responded with the coat of arms of the pope.

8.4 Admittedly, there is no documentary evidence either in favor of or against whether Monteverdi was granted a personal, private audience with Pope Paul V. In this situation, well known to every historian, we are at a crossroads: will we acquiesce in our ignorance or will we strive after circumstantial evidence for drawing conclusions? I for my part, confident in the proven methods of historical research and interpretation, am prepared to take the second path in disclosing the intention of each acting person as well as the scope and limitation of their action within the existing socio-political context. As a matter of fact, Monteverdi declares his intention in dedicating the publication to the pope with a charming pun using his family and Christian names, to obtain the blessing of the pontiff—certainly not a written but a personal one—bestowed in a private audience. Without explicitly disowning religious reasons, he stresses the secular purpose of his aspiration, namely to close the mouths of those speaking detrimentally of him. In other words: Monteverdi’s intention in dedicating the publication to the pope is to put a definitive end to the debate over the seconda pratica by inducing the pope to perform the symbolic act of granting a private audience to him. According to ceremonial protocol, the blessing of Monteverdi would have been understood in contemporary society as the recognition of the seconda pratica, for which Monteverdi had been reprimanded in public, by the supreme authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This was Monteverdi’s intention. But the pope could not comply with it, irrespective of his real opinion (if he had any). The blessing of Monteverdi would have been an insult to the memory of the last but two of his predecessors, Clement VIII, to his former colleague cardinal Pompeo Arigoni (who was born in the same city of Rome in the same year 1552 and elevated to cardinal in the same consistory as he, and who had officiated since 1607 as archbishop of Benevento after having been counselor to the pope), and to the clergyman Artusi as well. But Paul V was obliged to the other side too, not so much to Monteverdi as to Ferdinando Gonzaga, whom he had elevated to cardinal on December 10, 1607. In this dilemma the pope chose the compromise of a delaying middle course, a political strategy for which he generally was well known. On the one hand, he consented to the dedication, including the appearance of his coat of arms on the title page; on the other hand he refused to grant Monteverdi a private audience. Of course, the contextual framework and the motives of the acting persons are my own construction, taking into account all available evidence. This scenario is posited for understanding what happened between Monteverdi and the pope. I would be happy to learn of other scenarios leading to a deeper comprehension of the past reality.

Translated from the German by J. Bradford Robinson

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