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Images of Crying in Bolognese Sacred Cantatas: the Jesuit Influence

Carrie Churnside


Weeping is a common occurrence in madrigal and cantata texts: tears caused by a loved one’s departure, or by the pain of unrequited love are a feature of countless poems set by seventeenth-century composers. On the other hand, in sacred texts, tears are typically seen as a physical sign of a sinner’s repentance. However, poems set by Cazzati in his Diporti spirituali per camera e per oratorii (1668) and Bassani in his La moralità armonica (1683) differ from those found in other volumes of sacred cantatas printed in Bologna around that time: in these works there is an insistence on deliberately invoked tears, with a dry-eyed sinner desperately urging his eyes to cry, desiring tears to demonstrate his repentance.1 The frequency of this theme specifically in these two volumes suggests they may have been influenced by the same theological works.

Both Cazzati and Bassani set the anonymous text ‘O mie luci dolenti’ (figure 1). Cazzati writes for solo soprano and two violins, Bassani for alto, tenor and bass voices without instruments. The poem appears in two different versions: Bassani’s text omits the second strophe and adds a final chorus. From its first line the tone and subject matter of the poem are made clear: it is a very personal plea to the speaker’s eyes to cry, making use of the imperative to command them to respond to ‘the cruel and fierce pains of my God’. The second strophe, set by Cazzati but not Bassani, makes it explicit that the speaker imagines beholding the crucifixion. Bassani’s omission, both here and in the next strophe, of the further reference to God making himself man draws the focus away from Christ’s sacrifice and towards human sins. The insistent questioning in the first half of the poem (most obvious in the version set by Cazzati) is in effect a rigorous self-examination.

Figure 1. ‘O mie luci dolenti’ as set by Cazzati and Bassani. English translation by Colin Timms

Cazzati: Diporti spirituali

O mie luci dolenti,
distillatevi in pianto: hor che 
le pene del mio Dio crude e 
versate pur le lagrime a torrenti.

O chiudi, o lancia, o spine,
o croce, di salute eccelso segno,
come sia ch’io vi miri, ingrato, 
se sol merta il mio error morti, e 

O peccator protervo,
ancor non ti com[m]ovi? Ancor 
offendi il Creator tanto amoroso?
Che sol per te il Dio s’è fatto servo,
o peccator protervo.

Scioglasi in lagrime
ogni cor rigido
di mortal perfido
a l’empia e horrida
fiera tragedia.

Con umil gemito
e supplichevole,
ciascun pentitosi
de’ falli orribili
il sen percuotasi

Solo risuonino
con strida flebili,
con grida querule,
voci che implorino
Bassani: La Moralità 

O mie luci dolenti,
distillatevi in pianto: hor che 
le pene del mio Dio crude e 
versate pur le lagrime a torrenti.

O chiudi, o lancia, o spine,
o croce, di salute eccelso segno,
come sia ch’io vi miri, ingrato, 

Scioglasi in lagrime
ogni cor rigido
di mortal perfido
a l’empia e horrida
fiera tragedia.

Con umil gemito
e supplichevole,
ciascun pentitosi
de’ falli orribili
il sen percuotasi

Solo risuonino
con strida flebili,
con grida querule,
voci che implorino

Mortali, che fate?
Sospirate, lagrimate,
e d’un Dio spasimante al rio dolore
risponda il petto e formi l’echo il core.

O my sorrowful eyes,
dissolve yourselves in tears:
when you behold the cruel and
fierce pains of my God, pour out
then, torrents of tears.

O nails, o lance, o thorns,
o cross, illustrious symbol of salvation,
how may I look upon you, ungrateful 
and unworthy as I am,
if my sins only merit deaths and ruins?

O wayward sinner,
are you still not moved?
do you still, stubborn, 
offend the all-loving Creator?
For just for you God made himself a servant, 
o wayward sinner

Let every rigid heart
dissolve in tears
at the impious and horrible
fiery tragedy
of mortal obstinancy

With a humble
and supplicatory groan,
let everyone beat his breast,
having repented
of his horrible faults.

With mournful clamour
and groaning cry
alone may voices resound
mercy from God.

Mortals, what are you doing?
Sigh, weep,
and to the wicked grief of a
dying God, let your breast reply
and let your heart form an echo.

The second half of the poem moves from the personal to the general and to the need for us all to repent. The lines ‘let every rigid heart / dissolve in tears’ are reminiscent of the unrequited lover in secular poetry pleading for his beloved’s rigid heart to yield, a situation paralleled with an all-loving God and a hard-hearted sinner. Cazzati also sets the word ‘misericordia’, a cry used in crisis processions such as those in time of plague and famine, whereas Bassani uses the tronco ending ‘da Dio pietà’.2 The addition of a final chorus in the Bassani allows for the first two strophes to be sung by alto, tenor and bass, followed by a strophe for each solo voice and a final one for all voices together. Poetically, it provides some symmetry with the first strophe, again urging weeping and making a further reference to a ‘dying God’. In this way the speaker’s initial personal request for tears becomes universally necessary.

Cazzati and Bassani’s settings of the poem emphasise different aspects of the text. Cazzati’s first three strophes are through-composed, followed by a strophic setting of the next two verses and a concluding aria for both voice and violins, a rare occurrence in this volume. The first three strophes are set to a lilting 3/2 melody, making use of descending figures to mimic the falling of tears. However, as the text becomes more dramatic there is a sudden change to a much more declamatory style, making the soul-searching questioning, which is directed as much towards the listener as the speaker in the poem, more striking (example 1).

Musical example

Example 1: Cazzati, bars 64–72

The first four lines of each strophe in the second aria are commands for all humans to take action. Cazzati draws attention to the didactic nature of these words through repeated rising notes (example 2).

Musical example

Example 2: Cazzati, bars 148–50

In the final aria the ‘resounding voices’ in the text are portrayed through the violins imitating the preceding vocal line, in passages reminiscent of fanfares, a long way away from the ‘mournful clamour’ and ‘groaning cry’ in the text.

Bassani’s setting of the text results in more sections. The first stanza is set as a da capo aria for all voices, with the first line, ‘O mie luci dolenti’, as the A section. Bassani draws attention to the most emotive words in the text through affective harmony, with descending melodic lines on ‘dolenti’ and ‘pianto’, chromatic ascents for ‘pene’, and a string of suspensions on ‘crude’ (example 3).

Musical example

Example 3a: Bassani, bars 5–10

Musical example

Example 3b: Bassani, bars 21–5

Musical example

Example 3c: Bassani, bars 44–8

Musical example

Example 3d: Bassani, 52–6

Bassani’s text has fewer questions than Cazzati’s setting, but both composers set the section beginning ‘o peccator protervo’ in a much more declamatory style that directly addresses the listener. The short alto aria that follows has a lilting E flat major melody in 6/8 that stresses the rhythm of the poetry, and Bassani chooses not to paint a mood of fiery and horrible tragedy, and instead reflects the sweet joy of rigid hearts dissolving into tears. The tenor soon enters, with a move to G minor, and Bassani also draws attention to the words ‘ciascun pentitosi / de falli orribli’ through repeated notes, although his use of 6/8 in comparison to Cazzati’s C results in emphasis on syllables that in speech would not be stressed (example 4).

Musical example

Example 4: Bassani, bars 112–13

Bassani not only responds to the idea of voices resounding in the next stanza, where the bass voice and continuo part intertwine, but also makes use of an imploring, yearning D flat–C figure (Example 5).

Musical example

Example 5: Bassani, bar 158

In the final two lines of the poem Bassani contrasts the preceding slow, homophonic 3/2 section with a passage in common time with much movement, reflecting the action that the text requires of the listener. Thus both composers make use of descending melodic lines to create a sense of sorrow and emphasise the important questions and commands directed towards the listener. In addition Bassani manages to create a sense of the sweetness of relenting, the yearning nature of the poem, and the action the text demands of the listener.

The questioning in Bassani’s final chorus is a trait of many sacred cantata texts. This blunt, direct questioning is intended to provoke a personal response and force the reader or listener to examine their own conscience and actions. The same technique is used in the opening line of another anonymous text set by Bassani under consideration here, ‘Mortali, ola, che fate?’ (Fugacità della vita humana) (figure 2). The listener is immediately addressed, and then commanded to cry. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a vanitas poem, as the speaker reveals that experience has taught him the falseness of worldly pleasures in the face of impending death. Crying to the world is pointless, as ‘inexorable time has become deaf to my laments’, and the speaker finds himself unable to cry, robbed of his tears. He implores other mortals to cry for him, and a didactic passage on the dangers of enjoying worldly pleasures follows. The concluding strophe is in many ways the most interesting, as it is in this familiar plea to his eyes to cry that the importance of crying is really emphasised: it will destroy his mistake, and by crying to God rather than bewailing his earthly losses, he will demonstrate his conversion into a repentant sinner.

Figure 2. Bassani: Mortali, ola! che fate? (Fugacità della vita humana). English translation by Colin Timms

Due canti e basso:
Mortali, ola! che fate?
Fin che l’aure bevete,
piangete, oh Dio, piangete
di questa vita il miserando fine,
stemprate i vostri lumi in pianto amaro.
Ch’anch’io pianger imparo
della mia gioventù l’aspre ruine:
doppo mille lusinghe e mille inganni
mi promise la pace,
ne pur tregua ritrovo a tanti affanni.

Poiché il tempo inesorabile
sordo è fatto a miei lamenti,
ne più cura i miei tormenti
quest’età che tanto è labile.

Vor[r]ei pianger, o Dio,
il lungo penar mio,
ma le stelle son rubelle
e il fato troppo ingrato
in un dolor cotanto
dalle pupille mie
tolgono il pianto.

Piangete, o mortali,
piangete per me
di gioie si frali
la vana mercé.
(da capo)

Fra scogli e tempeste
in mare di pene
s’aggira la speme
su l’onde funeste.

Su, del mondo lusinghiero
s’abboriscano gl’inganni
ne si fida in un pensiero
poich’a noi fan guerra gl’anni.

Pupille crudeli,
con pianto di duolo
l’errore struggete,
con nembo fatale
la gioia mortale piangete.

Mortals, alas, what are you doing?
since you drink the airs
cry, o God, cry,
for the wretched end of this life
dissolve your eyes in bitter tears.
I too am learning to lament
the bitter ruins of my youth:
after a thousand flatteries and a thousand
deceits, it promised me peace,
but I don't find any relief to such grief.

Since inexorable time
has become deaf to my laments,
this age which is so frail
no longer cares for my torments.

I would like to bewail, o God,
for my long torment,
but these hostile stars
and a too ungrateful fate
in a comprable sorrow
rob me of my tears.

Bewail, o mortals,
bewail for me
the vain mercy
of such frail joys.

Between rocks and tempests
in a sea of troubles
hope wavers
carried by threatening waves.

Let the deceits of the enticing world
be abhorred
nor let anyone trust a worldly thought
since years make war on us.

Cruel eyes,
destroy the mistake
with a cry of pain,
with a fatal storm
cry for mortal joy.

These ideas I describe in Bassani’s text are paralleled in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. A Spanish nobleman, Ignatius founded the Jesuits in 1540 and was canonized by the Bolognese pope Gregory XV in 1622. The Society of Jesus enjoyed immense success and power in the seventeenth century: by the 1640s almost every Catholic ruler had a Jesuit spiritual director, and in 1681 the society had 18,000 members.3 One of the Jesuits’ greatest successes was the importance they placed on education. By setting up a network of reputable colleges, which not only trained novices but also educated the governors of the future, they influenced a great deal of Catholic society.4 The majority of popes in the seventeenth century were also educated by the Jesuits.5

At the heart of the Jesuit approach were Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, first printed in 1548, a guide for sinners to find repentance and build a better relationship with God.6 Although written down, the Exercises were intended to be given orally by a guide who had already completed them himself. The full Exercises last five hours a day for four weeks, with the exercitant removing him- or herself from their usual surroundings and acquaintances to avoid distractions. Shortened versions can also be undertaken, however the initial exercises are still obligatory. In the first week the exercitant contemplates his or her sins, in the second they consider the events of Christ’s life up until Palm Sunday, in the third the Passion, and in the fourth the Resurrection and the Ascension: the focus moves from repentance for past sins to a desire to lead a more religious life.

The first week of the Exercises is purgative: Ignatius states that the exercitants should dedicate themselves to ‘contrition, sorrow and tears over their sins’.7 That the first week is concerned primarily with crying as a sign of repentance is emphasized by constant references to the necessity of tears. The exercitants should ask ‘for mounting and intense sorrow and tears for [their] sins’, they should force themselves to weep, directly paralleling the cantata texts’ commands to cry.8 These poems make no mention of heaven’s rewards, focusing instead on the misery of human sins, and this is something recommended by Ignatius for the first week:

We should not want to think about agreeable or glad things, e.g. final glory or resurrection etc, because feelings of grief, pain and tears for our sins are only impeded by thoughts about joy and gladness. Instead I should keep before me my wish to grieve and feel sorrow, and remind myself more of death and judgement.9

This remembrance of and sorrow for past sins leads to a general confession at the end of the week: as in the text of ‘Mortali, ola, che fate?’, the tears shed in the first week allow the sinner to demonstrate his repentance and are the first step towards his conversion. This general confession is viewed as a dramatized statement from the sinner to God that he is repentant and ready to begin a more devout life. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the Spiritual Exercises is its insistence on a personal relationship with God, which is achieved through the technique of imagining a biblical scene in vivid detail and engaging with it, with a constant and insistent self-questioning:

Imagining Christ our Lord before me on the cross, make a colloquy asking how it came about that the Creator made himself man, and from eternal life came to temporal death, and thus to die for my sins. Then, turning to myself I shall ask, what have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ? Finally, seeing Him in that state hanging on the cross, talk over whatever comes to mind.10

This sort of self-interrogation is found throughout the cantata texts, and the wording of these questions is almost identical to ‘Mortali, ola, che fate?’. That both Cazzati and Bassani set these questions in such a striking declamatory manner shows they wished to emphasise this self-questioning. In addition, Ignatius prescribes imagining a detailed picture of Christ on the cross, and then self-examination of how one personally would respond to this sight. This is paralled most obviously in the poem set by Cazzati, in the strophe where the speaker describes himself as looking upon the nails, lance, thorns and cross, and examines the sense of unworthiness he then feels. Ignatius advocates the use of sensual stimulation in order to make a greater impression; for example, in the first week’s meditation on hell the exercitant should imagine not only what hell looks like, but also how it sounds, smells, tastes and feels.11

As we have established, for Jesuits tears were necessary signs of contrition. But they were also a symptom of the much sweeter feeling of ‘consolation’:

I use the word ‘consolation’ when one sheds tears that lead to the love of one’s Lord, whether these arise from grief over one’s sins, or over the Passion of Christ our Lord, or over other things expressly directed towards His service and praise.12

It is perhaps the desire to express this sweeter feeling of consolation, rather than remorse over sins, that resulted in Bassani’s setting of the words to ‘let every rigid heart’. The reference to the heart found here and throughout the other texts also corresponds to the belief held by Jesuits, amongst others, that the heart was the home of spiritual emotion, with which the eyes had a special connection, outwardly expressing the heart’s feelings.13

Thus several features of the cantata texts, (including the idea that tears were a necessary sign of repentance and may also provide consolation, and the importance of self-interrogation and imagination), could very well have been inspired by the Spiritual Exercises. Although a work of the sixteenth-century, Ignatius’s Exercises were still enormously popular in the seventeenth. Jesuit priests undertook the complete exercises three times in their career, and a shorter version every summer.14 All boys educated in Jesuit colleges in the seventeenth century made the Exercises in some form, and members of Jesuit Marian sodalities would go as a group to a retreat house and follow the exercises of the first week.15 Ignatius’s own annotations show that the course was intended to be applicable to everyone, regardless of the exercitant’s sex, education or disposition. Thus it is highly likely that the authors of the cantata texts would have been familiar with the ideas found in the work.

These two volumes were printed in Bologna, and both Cazzati and Bassani were actively working in the city at the time of their publication. Cazzati held the post of maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Petronio, and in 1683, the year of La moralità armonica’s publication, Bassani was in Bologna, acting as principe of the Accademia Filarmonica.16 The Jesuits had a strong influence in the city, enjoying the support of powerful patrons. Around this time the Jesuit church of San Lucia, in which one of the first members of the Society of Jesus, Saint Francis Xavier, lived for several months, underwent extensive redecoration, funded by influential Bolognese patricians.17 Bolognese Jesuits interacted with members of all social classes not only through their schools (the city boasted one college for cittadini, another for nobles, and a seminary), but also through Marian Congregations. By 1660 these groups boasted nearly 800 members from all sectors of society. However, the most powerful of these, the congregation of SS. Salvatore, was open only to nobles and exerted its considerable influence upon the Senate on behalf of the Jesuits.18 Sacred cantatas were not performed in church due to their vernacular text; instead they would have provided spiritual recreation in the chambers of the aristocracy and would have been particularly suitable for performance at Marian congregations.19 Thus if Bassani and Cazzati did choose to set texts inspired by Jesuit theology they would have had a large number of potential customers in the Bolognese aristocrats who supported the Jesuits, and members of Marian congregations. They would also not be the only composers of the time to set Jesuit texts. In their study of Charpentier’s motets Jane Gosine and Erik Oland convincingly argue that the French composer’s use of rhetorical devices and affective passages is influenced by the Jesuits’ insistence on clear oration and appeals to the senses.20

Of course the Jesuits were not the only religious organisation whose theology could have influenced these cantata texts. The Oratorians also influenced large sections of society in the seventeenth century through large-scale preaching and music, and sacred cantatas were performed at their meetings. However, an inventory of music in the library of the Bolognese Oratorians from 1682, which lists nearly one hundred sacred cantatas, does not include any from Cazzati’s Diporti spirituali (Bassani’s La moralità armonica was not published until the following year), making it unlikely that these cantatas were performed in the Oratory.21 The lack of a specific Oratorian theological work advocating crying also makes a Jesuit influence more likely.

The idea of tears as important signs of repentance is certainly not unique to Jesuit theology; it has its origin in several biblical passages. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises owe a great deal to previous writers, and the first week is clearly linked to the concept of a ‘purgative state’, found in Christian writing from the time of Dionysius.22 From the outset of the order, however, Jesuits appear to have been linked with both public and private displays of tears. Ignatius underwent mystical visions which were accompanied by weeping, and, according to Joseph de Guibert ‘no other saint, man or woman, has in practice given to these tears a place equal with that of Ignatius’.23 Sixteenth-century letters from Spanish Jesuit houses to Loyola in Rome often refer to priests ‘whose effectiveness is measured by their ability to make their audiences weep’.24 In the seventeenth century the idea of deliberately provoked weeping appears to have been most obviously promulgated by the Jesuits, who had such a pervasive influence throughout Catholic Europe (and beyond).

It seems likely that Cazzati and Bassani deliberately chose to set texts influenced by Jesuit theology, yet their motivation for doing so is not clear. One possible reason why Cazzati may have chosen these texts is his choice of dedicatee, Duchess Laura d’Este. Regent of Modena from 1662 until 1674, Laura was a deeply religious woman, in whose court devotion was encouraged and priests were powerful. Her confessor and advisor was the Jesuit Padre Andrea Garimberti, and Laura would certainly have appreciated the theology behind these poems.25 But Cazzati did not only set these texts for Laura. In the same year he also printed a separate cantata about the Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier, ‘Orgoglioso Guerriero’ (Lamento di San Francesco Saverio), dedicated to a noble Bolognese couple Alessandro Banzi and Giulia Orsi.26 I have been unable to discover any details about the Banzi, or Bassani’s dedicatee, Count Scipione Rossi, Prince of San Secondo, but perhaps all of these dedicatees would have appreciated the Jesuit theology in these texts. The choice of texts may be due to the composers’ own religious experiences, or perhaps Cazzati and Bassani merely realised that the influence of the Jesuits was such that a large prospective market existed for such cantatas. At this point it must be noted that these volumes do not contain these texts exclusively, and would have been suitable for any Catholic desiring spiritual recreation. Indeed, Cazzati’s title, Diporti spirituali per camera e per oratorii seems to suggest that he wished to appeal to the widest available market. Whatever their motivation, it is clear that the idea of provoked religious weeping occurs in these works of Cazzati and Bassani and not in similar volumes printed in Bologna at the time, and a link between this and Jesuit theology, whilst not conclusive, is certainly very appealing.


1 Maurizio Cazzati, Diporti spirituali per camera e per oratorii, op. 49 (Bologna: n.p., 1668); Giovanni Battista Bassani, La moralità armonica, op. 4 (Bologna: Giacomo Monti, 1683; rpt. Pier-Maria Monti, 1690; Marino Silvani, 1700) Back

2 William A. Christian Jr., ‘Provoked Religious Weeping in Early Modern Spain’, Religious Organization and Religious Experience, ed. J. Davis (London: Academic Press, 1982), p. 98 Back

3 J.C.H. Aveling, The Jesuits (London: Blond and Briggs, 1981), pp. 225, 250 Back

4 See Gian Paolo Brizzi, ‘Il collegio dei nobili di Bologna’, La formazione della classe dirigente nel sei-settecento (Bologna: Mulino, 1976), pp. 71–130 Back

5 Aveling, The Jesuits, p. 222 Back

6 Saint Ignatius of Loyola, ‘The Spiritual Exercises’, Personal Writings, trans. Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean (London: Penguin, 1996), pp. 281–358 Back

7 Ibid., p. 284 Back

8 Ibid., p. 296 Back

9 Ibid., p. 300 Back

10 Ibid., p. 296 Back

11 Ibid., pp. 298-9 Back

12 Ibid., p. 349 Back

13 William A. Christian Jr., ‘Provoked Religious Weeping’, p. 106 Back

14 Aveling, The Jesuits, p. 198 Back

15 John O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 129–30. Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits: their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice, trans. William J. Young (Chicago: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1964), p. 301 Back

16 See Anne Schnoebelen, ‘Cazzati, Maurizio’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edn, ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, 29 vols (London: Macmillan, 2001), v, pp. 322–5; Peter Smith and Marc Vanscheeuwijck, ‘Bassani, Giovanni Battista’, New Grove, ii, pp. 856–8 Back

17 Paola Foschi, ‘La chiesa di S. Lucia e i collegi dei Gesuiti. Vicende costruttive’, Dall’isola alla città: I Gesuiti a Bologna (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1988), pp. 35–6 Back

18 Giancarlo Angelozzi, ‘Collegi, Congregazioni, Missioni popolari: un progeto di disciplinamento sociale’, Dall’isola alla città, pp. 128–9 Back

19 Thomas Culley, Jesuits and Music: A Study of the Musicians connected with the German College in Rome during the Seventeenth Century (Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1970), p. 20 Back

20 C. Jane Gosine and Erik Oland, ‘Docere, delectare, movere: Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jesuit Spirituality’, Early Music, xxxii (2004), 511–39 Back

21 Oscar Mischiati, ‘Per la storia dell’Oratorio a Bologna. Tre inventari del 1620, 1622 e 1682’, Collectanea Historiae Musicae, 3 (1963), 131–70. The inclusion of a cantata by Cazzati in the library, ‘Già tra l’ombre di morte’ (Sa Ma Maddalena al Sepolcro di Xpo), suggests that it was not merely the case that Cazzati’s music was not included because of his difficult relations with the Bolognese musical establishment. Back

22 See Paul Debuchy, ‘Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius’ and Arthur Devine, ‘State or Way (Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive)’, Catholic Encyclopedia Online, ed. K. Knight (accessed 1st Feb 2006), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/index.html Back

23 Guibert, The Jesuits, p. 62 Back

24 William A. Christian Jr., ‘Provoked Religious Weeping’, p. 100 Back

25 Victor Crowther, The Oratorio in Modena (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 10 Back

26 Cazzati, Lamento di S. Francesco Saverio (Bologna: n.p., 1668) [without opus number but actually op. 48a] Back

© Carrie Churnside, 2006

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