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Arthur Butterworth - A 75th Birthday Tribute
by Richard D. C. Noble

In August 1998 Arthur Butterworth will be celebrating his 75th birthday and has recently completed his 100th opus, a string quartet. It is the first time he has chosen to confront himself with this challenging genre which is rather surprising when we consider the wide range and depth of his creative output. One would like to think that the musical world will be eagerly awaiting the completion of this new work which will undoubtedly underline a new facet of his inspiration. Unfortunately, despite all that he has achieved, Arthur Butterworth is little known outside his native North of England (since strictly speaking he is a Lancastrian) except in the rather confined world of the brass band for which he has provided effective music that has been widely played. His extensive output of orchestral scores, which includes four symphonies, several concertos and other large-scale works, ensemble music of great variety and some very telling vocal and choral pieces has all been highly praised in its time but little has established itself in the regular repertory.

It is a fate that has befallen many composers, of course, but for Arthur Butterworth one problem has been that virtually nothing of his has ever been commercially recorded. At one time this was never considered to be very important but today recordings can make all the difference between a composer who becomes well known and one who remains in relative obscurity. Recordings are disseminated throughout the world and they also become the easy option for broadcasting organisations, not least the BBC. Once on record the music starts to be heard by ever-widening audiences and if they like what they hear they demand more and the snowball effect gathers pace. No composer is more deserving of this recognition than Arthur Butterworth, who was appointed MBE in 1995. One can only hope that on the occasion of his 75th birthday something can be done to draw attention to his remarkable achievement.

Perhaps we should state straightaway that Arthur is in no way related to the composer George Butterworth with whom he has sometimes been confused. He was born in Manchester on 4 August 1923. On leaving school he worked in a solicitor's office for a time before joining the Royal Engineers in 1942. On demobilisation, he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music (RMCM) in 1947, studying composition with Richard Hall for two years; also trumpet and conducting. As a student of Richard Hall - before Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Elgar Howarth came on the scene - he was inculcated with the ideals of the Second Viennese School but soon rejected it as not being what he wanted to say. He had already written some pieces before entering the College and his first acknowledged opus, Now on Land and Sea Descending, a setting for contralto and orchestra of 'The Vesper Hymn' by Longfellow, was one of the pieces he submitted as evidence to the RMCM that he was suitable to be taken on as a composition student. This was eventually performed at a college concert and provided Butterworth with his first experience of conducting a proper orchestra, albeit a student one.

Shortly after the war, being stationed in Germany at Flensburg, he became much influenced by German church music and by a group of musicians he met who opened his ears and eyes to what music was really about. The German influence is reflected in some of his earliest pieces dating from 1947 such as the Organ Partita on a German Chorale and the Hindemithian Oboe Sonata, all destined for performance at the RMCM student concerts, Then, at the behest of Richard Hall and with some reluctance, he wrote his only strictly 12-note composition, the Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, and had to admit when it was performed that he rather liked it. The Modal Suite had a curious genesis. One week-end Richard Hall took all his composition students away for a seminar. The object was to go to a place without a piano so that the pianists would not be able to rely on working at the keyboard. Each had to write a work for the available instruments some of them played. Hence the combination of flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet (Butterworth's own instrument), violin, viola and cello. His Suite was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and rustic, using quasi-folk modal tunes. He later used the first movement as a trio section in his Gigues, Op. 42.

The first 'good' piece the composer considers he wrote as a student was the Suite for strings of 1948, Its up-beat opening in ¾ time was inspired by Elgar's Severn Suite for brass band which for some reason appealed to Butterworth. It was his first work to be broadcast by the BBC with the London String Orchestra under Maurice Miles but only on the Latin American Service on Short Wave. An in-house recording on a huge 20" disc was made of the broadcast which the composer was invited to hear but which, for contractual reasons, then had to be destroyed. What a waste! In 1952 Butterworth himself conducted two further performances of the work but no recordings were made and the work has recently been revived by the English Sinfonia at Stevenage on 26 October 1997.

Butterworth had better luck with the Sinfonietta of 1949, written very much under the influence of Vaughan Williams, which was accepted by the BBC and broadcast with the BBC Northern under John Hopkins in 1953 and later performed a few more times with other orchestras. Another piece inspired by Vaughan Williams was the Legend, dating from 1950, which he wrote for the Buxton Spa Orchestra of which at the time he was a member for the summer season of 1950. Butterworth took some lessons with VW at about this time when his influence was at its zenith and was told by the great man that eventually he would 'grow out of it' and that he was not then to think himself 'unfaithful' to him. A generous and perceptive comment to make to an incipient young composer with much potential inside him. Inspired he must always have been by this great figure in British music, but his mature music has followed a rather different path, being profoundly influenced by the spacious surroundings of the Airedale moors where he has made his home, not confined to the more parochial English countryside which once led Elisabeth Lutyens, that naughty girl, to condemn a whole generation of British composers as 'the cowpat school'. He might well have heeded another pronouncement coming from that provocative lady, namely 'If you are a composer, you bloody well compose!'

Butterworth has never ceased to compose throughout his professional life. Some pieces, relevant enough at the time they were written, he can now dismiss as being of no importance, but the core of his output is based on very solid foundations. His large-scale orchestral scores have an expansive Nordic quality almost unique in British music and may best be demonstrated in his four symphonies, the first of which was premiered by Sir John Barbirolli in 1957 and brought to the Proms in 1958, heralding what seemed at the time to be a powerful new British symphonist, Unfortunately Butterworth's broad atmospheric gestures, anchored in the tradition of an earlier generation were entirely out of tune with the changing fashions of the 1960s. Always true to himself and somewhat in conflict with the advice of his teacher, Richard Hall, he came to the fore at the wrong time and his music has never established itself in the way it deserves. He lists Elgar, Holst, Bliss, Ireland, Finzi and Bax (but not Delius) as composers from whose music be has received inspiration quite apart from Vaughan Williams but he feels real spiritual attachment to Sibelius and composers of the northern school. Perhaps his attraction for the wide open spaces which comes through so forcefully in so much of his music was first triggered by the experience of finding himself undergoing military training in Spey Bay near Lossiemouth in the highlands of Scotland at the start of his war service. He found it a remote and strangely mystical region which had a profound effect on him and which he has subsequently revisited in more benign circumstances, but the environment of the Yorkshire moors where he has made his home offers space enough to feed his inspiration. Not for nothing did he name his house at Embsay near Skipton, where he has lived with his wife and family for many years, 'Pohjola' after a Finnish legend of the Kalevala.

After leaving the RMCM, Butterworth began his professional career as a trumpeter with the Scottish National Orchestra (1949-1955) and then with the Hallé (1955-1962). Here he learnt all he ever needed to know about the orchestra and how to write for it and has always regarded the years he spent with these two great orchestras as among the best in his life. He also taught brass for the former West Riding Education Department for a few years until being appointed lecturer in composition at Huddersfield University Music Department, a post he came to loathe and finally gave up in 1980, leaving himself totally free to compose and to conduct. In 1962 he had been appointed associate conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Society and in 1964 became permanent conductor, a post he found much to his taste, leaving only in 1993. He has guest-conducted many other orchestras, mainly in concerts where his own works have been featured, not least some of the BBC orchestras, but has found that since reaching the age of 60 this aspect of free-lance work for the BBC has virtually ceased. Since 1969 he has had a particularly happy association with the Settle Orchestra in the Yorkshire Dales where, against all the odds of rural life, a very efficient amateur orchestra is maintained which regularly engages good professional soloists and has a professional leader.

Butterworth's success in writing effective music for brass bands may be explained by the fact that he began his musical life as a brass player in early youth with the Besses o' the Barn Band in Manchester and soon acquired a full understanding of its capabilities but he has a love-hate relationship with the brass band movement because of the trivial nature of so much brass band mentality as regards the quality of its music. His own music for the medium falls uncomfortably between two stools: it is not popular enough in the brass band sense and not contemporary enough for the intellectuals outside the brass band movement but he is in constant demand for new pieces and he took on the directorship of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain in 1975 but eventually handed over to Roy Newsome, a true man o' brass.

Let us now return to Butterworth's time with the Scottish National Orchestra in the early 1950s in order to examine his progress as a fully professional composer. Worth mentioning for sure is the Romanza for horn and strings which he composed in 1954 for the then principal horn of the SNO, by all accounts an eccentric character whose grandmother was said to be a Red Indian squaw. He never performed it, but it was eventually done by Ifor James with the BBC Northern in 1958. By this time Butterworth had moved from Scotland back to Manchester to join the Hallé and his reputation had become firmly established with the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 at the Cheltenham Festival on 19 July 1957 by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli. This was the work in which the composer found his true mode of expression, creating a great edifice of soaring harmony and spacious sound in the spirit of Sibelius. Dedicated to his wife (they had been married in 1952), the symphony was very slow in gestation. He had set down his first ideas one September afternoon back in 1949 when he was still technically a student although about to join the SNO. The hectic life of an orchestral musician both with the SNO and then, on moving back to Manchester to join the Hallé in 1955, setting up house and settling down in new surroundings allowed little time for serious composition but eventually he did find the time and the symphony was finally completed on 6 March 1956. The Cheltenham concert, which was nationally broadcast, was skilfully planned with Rawsthorne's Street Corner Overture and Ireland's Concertino Pastorale to serve as a warm-up for the new premiere. The concert was rounded off, after the interval, with Beethoven's fifth symphony, ensuring a packed house, and the new symphony was given a splendid performance and was received with tumultuous applause. The music critics, too, were suitably impressed although it may have been a little disconcerting for the composer to discover that for The Times critic the last movement was an effective evocation of huge crowds of people heaving and roaring together at the end of a football match when what he intended to depict was a wild northern landscape in winter. The symphony went on to enjoy a successful London premiere at the Proms, the following year, also under Barbirolli, again in company with Beethoven, and to have several later performances including two with BBC orchestras under the composer's baton but astonishingly it is the only work of his ever to have been performed at a Prom which must count as a frustration for him.

It was in 1958 that Butterworth was to write one of his most effective and most often performed shorter works for orchestra, The Path Across the Moors, and another evocation of wide open spaces with a haunting melody which came to him one day when idly strumming on the piano and which enchanted his wife. The piece is descriptive of a favourite walk he took almost daily across the moors with his dog, "Piccolo" and conjures up a wonderful atmosphere. Two years later he wrote a similar piece, The Quiet Tarn (Malham), scored for chamber orchestra. This was given its first performance with the BBC Northern under George Hurst together with The Green Wind, which is not inspired by the Yorkshire moors but by a villa of that name on the Côte d'Azur. Meantime he had written another evocative work on a larger scale, premiered with the BBC Scottish under Maurice Miles, Three Nocturnes: Northern Summer Nights, inspired by summer nights spent not on the moors but in the more remote Highlands of Scotland, taking as his starting point a work he had written for solo piano for a fellow student at the RMCM in 1949, Lakeland Summer Nights, but using new material in the final movement.

In 1965 came A Dales Suite, his first significant work for brass band, commissioned by Ermysteds Grammar School in Skipton. It was soon published and has enjoyed a great many performances both in this country and also in Australia. Many years later in 1981, he re-scored the work for orchestra and this splendid new version was premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Ashley Lawrence in 1982 and has also been heard in Australia performed by the Lane Cove Orchestra.

When the First Symphony was performed in Bradford in November 1957 it made such a strong impression that the Bradford Subscription Concerts Society immediately commissioned Butterworth to write them a follow-up symphony for the centenary of its association with the Hallé orchestra in 1965. Like the First Symphony, No. 2 was long in gestation but the composer did not get down to serious work on it until 1963-4. It proved to be another large panoramic work and was duly performed by Sir Adrian Boult with the Hallé during the centenary season, which of course also marked the centenaries of both Sibelius and Nielsen, the significance of which did not escape the composer's attention.

In the meantime, Butterworth had written another very substantial work, unofficially for the BBC Northern but not commissioned or paid for by the BBC. This was The Moors, a suite for large orchestra and organ which evokes the spirit of the moors of northern England at four different seasons of the year, four times of the day and under four differing kinds of weather. It reality it is another full-scale symphony and was first performed under Stanford Robinson in January 1963.

Butterworth's next work on a large scale, A Moorland Symphony, was written for the Saddleworth Festival of 1967 and set words by the little known Saddleworth poet, Ammon Wrigley (1872-1946). It was the result of an Arts Council commission and was successfully premiered under the composer's baton with the BBC Northern and the Saddleworth Choral Society. Three years later he was commissioned to write another rather different work for the Saddleworth Festival. This was Trains in the Distance for speaker and tape with chorus and orchestra. The poems all deal with nostalgia about the decline of steam power, It was later also performed at the 1976 York Festival in the National Railway Museum. A tape of this performance was made and is believed to be still on sale in the NRM gift shop in York. Unfortunately the performance was not as well rehearsed as it should have been. Butterworth has always had an interest in railway history and serves occasionally in the book-shop of his local village steam railway on fine summer Sundays.

The most successful of all Butterworth's numerous pieces for brass band was Three Impressions, which has been played all over the world. It was written for the Northumberland Youth Band and premiered at the Morpeth Festival in 1968. It has titles descriptive of the 19th century industrial revolution in Northumberland one of which, 'Puffing Billy' describes the first crude railway engine and was adapted from a Granada TV documentary on the Salvation Army transmitted in 1967 and called 'The Warmongers' for which Butterworth contributed the music. The Triton Suite for brass septet, commissioned by the Antonine Brass Ensemble in Scotland, has also enjoyed wide success, especially in the US, where it was published by Robert King Music. Among other brass pieces of the period, Caliban written primarily for the Brighouse & Rastrick Band, became well-known because it was chosen as a test piece for the National Championship at the RAH but the composer would prefer such works to be respected as concert rather than mere contest pieces.

The work-list will reveal the wide variety of brass band and ensemble music Butterworth was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly for specific performers and for educational purposes, some perhaps of transitory value but much of durable worth. To examine each one of these pieces here would take too much space and detract from the major works that should command our attention, but certain works possess unusual features well worth noting. One such is Ancient Sorceries commissioned by the counter-tenor Owen Wynne for performance at a Radio Manchester recital in 1975. The title comes from a tale of the supernatural by Algernon Blackwood, the poetry from Walter de la Mare. Because of the ethereal voice of the counter-tenor, the less than robust sound of the recorder as opposed to, say, the flute, and the spindly quality of the harpsichord, the composer strove to create a 'fairy' piece quite unlike anything else he had written, skilfully avoiding the kind of pastiche so many composers descend to when writing for early instruments with a few 'wrong' notes added to bring their music into the 20th century.

Another curious work, The Owl and the Pussy Cat, dates from 1978 and arose because a friend in Denmark wanted something for the improbable combination of brass band, jazz group and a small chorus for a concert to be given in Hjørring. Apart from anything else was he to set Danish words? Happily English is well spoken and understood in Denmark and Edward Lear's grandfather had been Danish so he compromised and settled for the latter. The amateur Danish performance was none too successful but the composer was able to put on a more satisfactory performance at the Huddersfield Polytechnic Music Department later on. Nor is the work as zany as it might at first appear. Butterworth saw a symbolistic, dark surrealist quality lying behind Lear's humour concerning the predatory nature of cats and owls, brought forcefully home to him on his nightly walks with his dog, occasionally rescuing other hapless creatures of the night. An animal lover, he is chairman of the local branch of the RSPCA. We have here an outwardly eccentric and humorous piece with a much darker hidden message.

In the orchestral field Butterworth was to produce some lighter pieces in the early 1970s. Italian Journeys written in 1971 for the BBC Concert Orchestra and eventually performed under Ashley Lawrence in 1974, inhabits a very different world from his northern environment and is an evocation of his travels with the Hallé in Italy in 1957 with movements descriptive of Rome (Toccata), Ravello (Nocturne) and Rimini (Tarantella). Another lighter work, Gigues, which we have already mentioned in connection with the youthful Modal Suite, was written for the Oldham Orchestra in 1973 but was later taken up by the BBC Concert Orchestra and other ensembles and very much wears its heart on its sleeve.

Then came the magisterial Organ Concerto, written for Gillian Weir and performed under the composer's direction at the 1973 Huddersfield Festival. It was also played later with the BBC Philharmonic. It was the first of his major works in the concerto form to be followed in 1978 by the Violin Concerto, first performed by Granville Morris with the Westmorland Orchestra in November of that year. Its first fully professional performance came later in 1981 with the BBC Scottish and with no less a soloist than Nigel Kennedy. When rehearsing the concerto, Kennedy asked the composer "Have you played it much yourself then?" and was utterly astonished to be told that the composer was no string player and thought that he must be joking for he found the violin part so idiomatically written that it could only have been created by a good fiddle player. With such qualities we may well ask ourselves why more violinists have not taken up this soaring and attractive work, and indeed why more attention has not been paid to the Third Symphony, Sinfonia Borealis, which much preoccupied the composer from the mid-1970s and finally came to fruition in a midday Prom broadcast from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester one Friday at the end of November 1979 with the BBC Northern under Bryden Thomson. Hardly prime time listening for so important a work. Inspired by Sibelius and the music of the north and at the same time paying homage to Vaughan Williams, it is another atmospheric score on a large canvas evoking wide and horizonless landscapes of isolation and solitude, as impressive as any of his essays exploring this territory which be has made so especially his own.

Not long afterwards, Butterworth was commissioned to write a piece for the Cotswold Sinfonietta, Nex Vulpinus. It takes the song 'The Fox' by Peter Warlock as the basis for a 'black' scherzo lamenting the death of the fox in the hunt. Like The Owl and The Pussy Cat it has other implications for the composer, an ardent anti-blood sports campaigner. Its success led to another commission the following year, Beowulf. Both were premiered at the English Music Festival at Cirencester, unfortunately in a church with notoriously poor acoustics but both works have enjoyed impressive performances at other venues since.

1981 gave birth to the symphonic study for large orchestra September Morn as the result of an Arts Council bursary award. Inspired by the famous painting of that name, 'Matinée Septembre' by Paul Chabas, it was written in honour of the centenary of Arnold Bax but, alas, has never been performed. Sad, too, that what must have been an amusing piece for two oboes and cor anglais entitled Leprechauns, commissioned by three young players who never acknowledged the receipt of the MS nor paid for it, has remained unheard. The players, as it were, absconded.

By 1982 Butterworth was already planning a Fourth Symphony which he finished in 1984, but the main themes had been in the back of his mind since 1972. The scherzo for this last symphony was conceived one bright cold frosty December afternoon when he was driving alone through Lossie Forest in the Spey Bay near Lossiemouth and needless to say its whole conception is inspired by the spacious, ever-changing northern landscapes from which the composer derives so much uplift and in many ways carries on the spirit of the First Symphony composed so many years before. It was first performed at a public concert on 8 May 1986 by the BBC Philharmonic under Bryden Thomson. The composer considers it to be one of his most fulfilling large-scale works, yet it has been entirely neglected in the years which have followed. This does not encourage Butterworth to create more symphonies which take so long in gestation. By contrast a Cheltenham Festival commission to mark his 60th birthday in 1983 resulted in his first really substantial chamber work, the Piano Trio, first performed by the Music Group of London and given many times since. It was composed in a hurry without much time for self-conscious reflection and has a fluency which makes it stand apart and we must regret that he has not found the time and the inspiration to create more works of this kind.

Perhaps Butterworth's most successful work for the brass band has been Odin, a work of symphonic depth first played at the International Trumpet Guild in 1986 which had the distinction of being chosen as the test piece at the 1989 National Brass Band Championship finals and heard no less than 22 times in succession at the Royal Albert Hall. The winners of the competition were Desford Brass, who later commissioned two further works from Butterworth Paean and Passacaglia, the latter founded on the notation of the Passacaglia in Brahms' Fourth Symphony, and both were enthusiastically received. Also dating from about this time came Kendal Clock, written for the Westmorland Orchestra to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Kendal's charter. The work is based on the seven tunes, one heard each day of the week, played by Kendal Town Hall clock which Butterworth successfully worked into a fantasia.

Another highly unusual commission came the composer's way from New Zealand to write a brass band work to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the establishment of Maori culture. The composer was sent a recording of some rather simplistic Maori folk tunes arranged by the late Inia Te Wiata and sung by a girls' choir which formed the basis for a suitably challenging work which became the Sinfonia Maoriana for brass. By then he was working on a substantial Viola Concerto which was not brought to fruition until 1992 and then given a broadcast performance by the BBC Philharmonic under Barry Wordsworth with Peter Lale as soloist in a concert to mark his 70th birthday but not transmitted until May 1994. This was the first full-scale concerto he bad written since the Violin Concerto of 1978, although Summer Music of 1986, written for Alison Birkinshaw and performed with the Settle Orchestra in 1987 is, in effect, a successful bassoon concerto. There are not so many good viola concertos in the contemporary repertoire for this one, with its tempestuous moto perpetuo finale and virtuoso writing, to be ignored.

A symphonic study for large orchestra, Northern Light, was commissioned by the Leeds Symphony Orchestra for its centenary in 1991. This is another northern impression depicting the northern moorland, in a midsummer midnight and early dawn. Also dating from 1991 is Solent Forts, commissioned by English Heritage for the retirement of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu as first chairman of EH. He actually chose the title of the piece as being appropriate to where he lives in Hampshire and with the notion of the many defences round the Solent - Drake and the Armada; the Napoleonic forts and D- Day in 1944. It was first performed by the Wren Orchestra at Kenwood and led to a brass band version, performed the following year by Howard Snell. The Concerto alla Veneziana, commissioned by the National Youth Brass Band, was set for a Saturday afternoon concert for the Proms in 1992 but alas, was cancelled because John Major apparently pressurised the BBC to relay test matches on Radio 3 on Saturday afternoons. Effectively a trumpet concerto, it was eventually given a high profile performance at the York Barbican with Maurice Murphy as solo trumpet. The composer was later persuaded to re-score it for large orchestra for the BBC Philharmonic with the promise of a performance that has yet to take place.

Another frustration for the composer in recent years was the commission by the Hallé for a midwinter concert of The Great Frost. Claire Bloom, who suggested the poetry and was to have been the narrator, pulled out of the project and the work was never performed. Kent Nagano, who was to have conducted, by way of compensation, asked the composer if he could write a piece for large orchestra and brass band for the Hallé to play at their last season at the old Free Trade Hall before moving to the new Bridgewater Hall. Also the CWS was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Cooperative Movement in Lancashire (always based in Manchester). Thus came about The Mancunians. The composer found some of his inspiration from the impressionist paintings of Adolphe Valette, the teacher of Lowrie. The CWS provided their own excellent brass band from Glasgow and the performance became a resounding success and a triumph in every way. Another successful recent work has been the concert overture Ragnarök commissioned by the Isle of Man government for the Manx Youth Orchestra in 1995. The Ragnarök stone in the Isle of Man is a Viking relic.

In 1997, came another triumph with the new Cello Concerto, a somewhat classically-based work cast in four movements in lyrical mood which was premiered under the composer's direction at Huddersfield Town Hall on 18 January 1997 with a brilliant young cellist, Rebecca Gilliver, as soloist, to great acclaim by all who were privileged to attend. In the summer he wrote some light entertainment music, Morris Dancers, for four enthusiastic horn players in Huddersfield and responded to a commission from the Mayfield Wind Ensemble by providing Actaeon's Ride for twelve wind instruments and double bass and then composed a serious concert piece, the Saxhorn Sonata for tenor horn in E flat, an instrument for which there is a very limited solo repertoire and a need for more. The tenor horn has a haunting quality and the work is in part inspired by J.M. Barrie's play, Mary Rose, for which Norman O'Neill wrote effective incidental music in 1920.

One hundred opuses and still the muse constantly beckons! But where are the commercial recordings and broadcasts that could bring all this music continuously to delight our ears? Perhaps in 1998, of all years, something can be done. In the meantime Arthur continues to walk across the moors with his dog, no longer, alas, with "Piccolo", nor "Flute" who succeeded him, nor even "Basso" (a giant poodle), but now with an Airedale of lengthening years named "Bruno", and all the time gaining fresh inspiration in the ever-changing light to uplift us all. Many happy returns!

© Richard D.C. Noble

The author would like to acknowledge the unstinting help he has received from the composer in providing through protracted correspondence so much invaluable information concerning the genesis of his compositions during the preparation of this article.

 


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