Gounod in Saint-Remy

The text below was written by Mr Marcel BONNET and published in the " PROGRAM OF THE LAIC FRIENDSHIP " in 1978. This man of Saint-Remy stock, in some sorts " the memory of the village ", very friendly, sent me this text very well written and filled with irresistible anecdotes. It brings very interesting information about an important period of Charles Gounod's life.

Le séjour de Charles Gounod à Saint-Remy-de-Provence
de Mars à Mai 1863




















In 1863, the organist of Saint-Remy is a young Alsatian, native of Oberbrück : Gervais-Protais Iltis. (We do not know how he came here, but we can note that another Alsatian had preceded him in that position: Thiébaud Spenlé - that very one who, in 1842 , had the honour to inaugurate the beautiful romantic organ doctor Louis Mercurin had just donated to the parish, and owed to montpéliérain organ maker Moitessier).

Saint-Remy people have a lot of consideration for their organist, whom they call only Mister Iltis - proving by this his notability, although his condition is modest. But he represents sacred music, and his title of "choirmaster" puts him amongst the elite of the country. If Mister Iltis lives thanks to music, it's especially for it that he lives, blessed to have an instrument that many of his colleagues of more important cities would envy him, and on which he likes playing the music of the masters, and that one only : That's what one of the priests will notice with satisfaction even though, during the office, he incurs the risk to be distracted!...

Saint-Remy has a parochial choir consisting only of ladies and girls: Mister Iltis, who conducts it himself, is the only male element - because morality would not know how to admit the mixture of sexes, especially in the lectern... On the other hand, only men regroup within the Echo of the Alpine, brass band created in 1860 - the same year when Mister Iltis arrived here. And it is still he who conducts it brilliantly, because the banner of our phalanx is abundantly endowed with medals won in the regional competitions, very fashionable during the Second Empire. Mister Iltis, his duties done, finds the time to give lessons of piano in some good households. Finally freed from his obligations, he still has the leisure to compose, as a relaxation, light music like his "Polka of the Birds" which had the honor of being printed and did much for Mr. Iltis's very enviable local reputation.

Let us add to it that Mister Iltis is accepted at the Club, as in the Grand Cafe, among the bourgeois readers of literary and musical serials, and that he frequents assiduously the small sphere of fine art and great literature amateurs, which Saint-Remy counts within it. He even struck up a friendship with a young nearby poet, Frédéric Mistral, to whom he will owe the biggest enjoyment, and the biggest honor, of his peaceful life - which will end only in 1901 in Bagnols-sur-Cèze. On March 20, 1863, indeed, Mistral writes to Mr Iltis to announcing him the most stunning of news: in utmost secrecy, he puts him in charge of providing to the installation, in Saint-Remy, of one of the masters of contemporary music: Charles Gounod.










CHARLES GOUNOD (1818-1893).


In this time, Charles Gounod has not yet acquired this glory which, arising later, will crown his works and his name. He's basically known for his music of religious inspiration: the masses and the oratorios have given him a sure fame. Until 1848, he devotes himself only to this genre which agrees perfectly with his religious, almost mystic nature. As an austere critic was able to say - much later - that it had the inconvenience to favor the blooming of the defects against the best qualities (p. Landormy), which made him more pompous and more theatrical in the church, than he will never become in the theater.... At least the theater will be more convenient for another aspect of his nature, sensitive and even sensual, which will provoke in him a sort of pagano-Christian duality which will torment him so strongly that, during his stay in 1839 at the Villa Médicis, after winning the Grand Prix de Rome of music, he will be seen, for a while, wearing the cassock...

But profane inspiration will eventually win him over, and the first opera which Gounod composes, in 1851 , is the voluptuous "Sapho" - which will be rather badly welcomed. Like in 1854 , "La Nonne Sanglante" and, in 1858 , "Le Médecin malgré lui". In 1859, he comes out with was is considered his masterpiece: Faust. It is failure, because neither the public, nor the critics, are favorable. Will follow "Philémon et Baucis" (1860 ) and "La Reine de Saba" ( 1862 ): the Emperor himself and the Court having sulked at this last one, the audience and the press will confirm his failure. These are difficult tests for the musician, strongly marked, profoundly touched - even though his Consideration on Bach's first Prelude, ( 1853 ) , of which the famous Ave Maria remained popular, and the mass of Sainte-Cécile's ( 1855 ) forced respect. And these are the two works that Mister Iltis, very informed on the musical production of his time, appreciates exactly as a good connoisseur. Which explains that his enjoyment equals his surprise when Mistral tells about his arrival in Saint-Remy with one of his favorite composers...















Although the setbacks affected him, Gounod does not feel beaten. He decides to rest and, in 1862 , he is in Baden-Baden where, avid to prepare the revenge, he thinks of a new opera: the subject of Mignon attracts him at first, but he abandons this project, picked up again later by Ambroise Thomas, to such a brilliant result... The reason for this change? Gounod has just discovered a Provençal poem published in 1859: Mirèio. He's captivated, enthused and literally reassured : in the depths of the crisis he's enduring, here's what he was waiting for: a song of love and peace, a pastoral idyll so highly expressed. He writes to Mistral which, one suspects it, accepts immediately: his poem brought him, with academic consecration, glory. It will give him, thanks to the opera, which then played the current role of the cinema or the television - relatively speaking - an approach to the general audience. Michel Carré is quickly asked to write a libretto - this weak libretto, so controversial, but which is only a libretto - and which Gounod accepts. He only has to plunge himself into the most convenient atmosphere for a happy conception. Curious thing, he first thought to look in Italy for an atmosphere. But where could it be better than in Provence? So he sets out on a pilgrimage to the sources, the sources of the mistralien poem. Heathen as much as Christian, Gounod's duality will do wonders with this poem, that the literary reviewer of the archbishop of Avignon has just judged severely by expressing strong reserves about it...

So the journey in Provence is decided. Mistral, enthused with this information, writes to Charles Gounod on February 25, 1863: " I'm delighted that my young girl pleased you, and you've only seen her in my verse. But come to Arles, to Avignon, to Saint-Remy, come to see her on a Sunday, when she leaves vespers, and in front of such beauty, such light and such grace, you will understand how easy and charming it is to pick up here, poetic pages. It means, Master, that Provence and I are waiting for you... "

On March 8 th, Gounod is in Marseille where, three days later, he conducts Faust's representation to a loud success. The next day, he is for Maillane, where he reads the libretto to Mistral : Like a child, Mistral weeps of joy! In the afternoon, and on foot, he takes his host to Saint-Remy to admire the Antiques and the Alpilles, which produce on the musician a very strong impression. In the evening, they dine and sleep in Saint-Remy, having in the meantime visited the good Mr Iltis, who takes them to his home, where he has a piano. There, Charles Gounod, who has already written some pages, puts himself at the piano, plays and sings - because he has a very beautiful voice. Outside, it is raining (i's like we say, one of these "raisso" March is known for). But who cares about it, in the small room where it feels good, illuminated by much more than just the weak light of candles?... Let remember the date even if we ignore the place: on Thursday , March 12, 1863. And think about the humble organist of Saint-Remy who, sitting next to one of the major poets of century, listens, played on his village professor's piano, to the man that will become one of the biggest musicians of his century, playing the first version of Magali's song, Andreloun's the herdsman air, and the song of the witch Taven.

Gounod is absolutely anxious to discover immediately, in fast stages, the places where Mireille's action takes place: on March 13, he's in Les Baux, where the barkeeper Cornille is his guide; the 16, he's in Arles; the 17, again in Les Baux which struck him, and where he visits the Valley of Hell. The 18, he returns has Maillane: That's when he chooses the place where he will settle. He would have loved Mistral's house in Maillane - the House of the Lizard - but it's not dreamable, Mistral's old mom not being able to receive a host. And Gounod regrets it. It becomes necessary to look for a place not far from Maillane, offering practical conveniences and more opportunities of communication with Les Baux, Arles, and, especially, les Saintes - the end of the world in those days. (Gounod will be there on March 19 and 20, and will feel overwhelmed there). The choice is quickly made: it'll be Saint-Remy. And it's on this 20th of March, like we've seen, that Mistral announces it, in confidence, to Mister Iltis.














Saint-Remy is then a cradle of greenery, and a haven of peace. The main place, the military exercise place, is shaded as a park; the ormeaux of the main street, the "cours" forms arceaux of boughs which, twenty five years later, Edmond de Goncourt will compare with a " Gothic nef ", just before Van Gogh is inspired by it. The different hotels - one says more gladly inns - that counts the city, although all situated at border of town, are all rustic sites. But those of Cheval-Blanc and la Graille are still

" foot and horse lodgings ", posthotels, where mailcoaches and others are coming and going, very frequented and too noisy. Smaller, the hotel business of Ville verte, is also more quiet. Next to the military exercise place, which is separated from the full campaign only by row of buildings called "lis oustau de Moussu Mercurin" (this doctor who built them under the Restoration and who gave the organ), it has an internal yard that a wall hardly separates from the first fields of Combette. That's where Mr Iltis takes his meals: he's even the only official boarder. And so that's where he will reserve, on the second floor, contiguous to the cafe Henri IV, room number 6. Gounod himself will say of it that it is " clean, white, very clear ", and it faces the church.

Ville verte - in Provençal Vilo-Verdo, name derived of a ancient place-named Villa viridis, the rural domain or the big orchard - Ville verte, always adorned with greenery, is run by Jean-Baptiste Rousset and his wife, Marguerite Pellissier, who's called, according to the Provençal custom, Pelissiero; Mr Iltis asks them to be very dicreet: it is important that their host is protected by total incognito.

And so, with much respect and discretion, they welcome this gentleman from Paris, so pleasant and so distinguished, who shows himself satisfied with their reception. So that barely settled, he will write to his wife, left in Paris: " My hostess looks like an excellent woman, and does everything she can to satisfy me. She's had fifteen children, she knows what care is; she's lost fourteen, she knows what is sorrow ".

This fifteenth child, only survivor of the brood, this cago-nis 7 years old, (as it turns out, Gounod has a son of the same age, Jean, and it brings him closer still to his hosts), we're quite a few to have known him in his long and green old age, because he died only in 1949, at the age of 93 : It's Henry Rousset, Father Rousset of the Slaughterhouse, as we called him (because his son, Joseph, was the caretaker of this establishment), and to whom, the author of these lines is redeemable, of more than a few details of this story...
















Welcomed by Mr Iltis, Charles Gounod settles down in Ville Verte on Monday , March 23, 1863, at three o'clock in the afternoon, by a beautiful weather. He is registered there under the name of Mr Pépin, as a painter, in Saint-Remy to prepare the model of the settings of an opera on the theme of "Mirèio", (it will indeed be necessary to explain, afterwards, the frequent visits of Mistral). But since he gave his true first name, Pelissiero, soon, will call him only Mister Charles (and it is always of Mister Charles, that father Rousset will speak about eighty three years later). At first, his orders for secrecy are well observed: but, in time, how can you prevent, that the whole country knows about your arrival, when you're a "foreigner" from Paris, speaking French and " so sharp ", in Saint-Remy's inn! Especially if you're original enough, to have delivered, by a carrier of Nimes, a piano, lifted up to the second floor of Ville Verte, with a lot of trouble on the 25th of march: What a fantasy, when you're a painter, to have such an instrument set up in your room!... The middle-class persons of the legitimist Circle Henri IV (next to Ville Verte), are as much intrigued as their homologues of the Grand Café Michel, near the Trinity, who are liberals. For once they think in common: who's this person, " standing out so well ", but so secret? So much so that one of them throws a witty remark, which will make fortune in the local annals: "This Pépin is Pépin-le-Bref!... "

All Saint-Remy notices the frequent arrivals of Mistral, the long walks that Mr Pépin takes with him, or with Mr Iltis, with whom he walks the military esplanade, or makes the tour of the Cours as every good Saint-Remois who respects himself. Curiosity growing, thus boosting public wickedness, his secret is soon only that of a buffoon. Less than a week later, everybody here knows Charles Gounod: but all respected his tranquillity and safety, for which all knew he strived, in a perfectly dignified and discreet attitude, though warm, and that the musician appreciated greatly.















Gounod likes very much his room. The conditions of the pension are so advantageous that he writes to his friend Georges Bizet, who wants to work in peace on one of his works: You can live here for nothing! (But Bizet will not come). From his wide opened window, while smoking a long clay pipe, one of his habits, the musician likes contemplating for a long time the landscape offered to his eyes, before going to the keyboard, or noting inspirations or impressions of the ending day . He writes to his wife, Anna : " I'm now settled down... I am all to MIREILLE: I am very well here for my thoughts... The view is magnificent: there is nobody in the house, and I would spend my life here, if those that I love were with me... My window is opened; the sky is of an azure! I hear cooing pigeons in the yard; For the rest, it's the silence of a convent. Six weeks of this meditation and MIREILLE is in the bag. This place is beautiful and pure as Italy: it is Italy of France, and I did well to settle here".

Every day, he takes a long walk in the countryside, " MIREILLE in his pocket and album in hand ", because not only does he note the motives which he finds, but also the impressions, he will develop later in the letter sent daily to his wife. He also sketches, because he's a skillful drawer. He even makes portraits: That of Pelissiero, among others, and that of Madame Galleron, his pleasant and beautiful neighbor, who runs the next door café Henri-IV, where he's welcome. As kind in her welcome, is Madame Benoît, the tobacconist, of whom he is a faithful customer: it is from her, near the church, that he buys these small cigars he's fond of. Only bourgeois persons buy them, and it increases the consideration he gets from the other customers. Is Mr Benoît sick? Here comes Gounod to the tobacco shop, specially to ask for news of his health...

Everywhere where one meets him, one greets him, ceremonially or gracefully, and Gounod is sensitive to this Provençal politeness, he notes on his pad that he is happy, delighted to be in this fragrant Eden...

One very often sees him at church, whether he goes to offices, or whether he climbs up to the organ, to improvise, or to assist Mr Iltis in the rehearsals of the choir, in preparation of Easter solemnities. The chorus-singers love what he has them sing, as this chant of Saint Gens, so popular, that our grandmothers knew it by heart (A l'ounour de Sant Gènt - canten toutis ensèn). Harmonized, transposed majestically, in a sense sublimized, it became the painful chant of the inhabitants of Les Saintes as they came to comfort dying Mireille: " Vous qui du haut des cieux... ". We hold the following anecdote from Louise Mauron, one of Maurouneto, that some of us knew, because she died only in 1943, almost hundred-years-old: In 1863, she was 17 years old, and was a member of the parochial choir... At the end of her life, with a small tremulous voice, we could still listen, with emotion, to her singing what she had learnt from Gounod!...

And Louise Mauron told us having seen, during the offices of the Holy Week, Charles Gounod marching past, wax candle in hand, with the Fabriciens, and to have heard him, on Easter Sunday, playing the organ for mass and vespers - the newspapers even wrote about it ... Like her, Father Rousset spoke about the kindness, about the simplicity of the Master who, thinking about his own son of the same age, taught him, the small boy of Ville Verte, how to make soap bubbles, with one of the long clay pipes which struck his contemporaries, and a bowl helpfully brought to them by a smiling Pélissiere...

Mistral (of the Factory) - cousin of the Maillanais - kept in the tradition of his family an anecdote concerning Gounod, laying at the edge of Réal, on a carpet of violets... It was maybe this Thursday , March 26 when himself noted, at eight o'clock in the morning, on his book: " charming morning. Concert of birds. Violets. I'm sitting at the edge of a brook... Light, transparency of waters: the barks of shrubs and the crystal of the brook covered with greenery ". In any case, it's the morning he found the tune: "Heureux petit berger..."

But it is especially the Alpilles which attract Gounod. He left, for example, a drawing of the quarry that, curiously, Van Gogh will paint a quarter of century later, and that Bonaventure Laurens had treated twenty years before Gounod... He will describe lovingly our hills to his wife, raving about the sweet and varied tints which they take in the successive effects of the light, in sometimes striking contrast . He sits down on the campstool he always carries with him, in the Valley of gros, which he draws - and, which, coincidentally, Van Gogh drew also: It's the current Valley which closes the Dam (built in 1891). But his preferred place , is the Valley of Saint-Clerg, because comes almost there every day. On March 30, he notes: Adorable silence; the shadow of pines; thousand violets. I remain there, about three hours, to dream, to listen to the noise of insects, and to work ". And that day he worked on his "Choeur des Moissoneurs". Often he will praise the charms of the valley to Madame Gounod : "There is closeby, twenty minutes away from Saint-Remy, in the mountain, the most beautiful valley one can see: it is from pure Italy; it is even Greek. The weather was magnificent, the sun colored beautifully the country and the mountains limiting it's horizon; it was pure as MIREILLE ".

So that, when, some months later, he'll have to go back To Paris, he'll never stop thinking of this happy stay: " If the beautiful valley of Saint-Clergue was somebody, tell him I'd write it to him" did he ask Mistral on October 26, 1863. And on the previous July 26, he will have written to Mr Iltis: " Oh! The beautiful place, the delicious natural corner of this small country, which the tourists have not yet contaminated with their presence. I lived over there about two months, just the time necessary for me to write MIREILLE... I was literally intoxicated by enjoyment; motives would burst in my head like flights of butterflies, I had only to open my arms to catch them. How much happiness I have just to remember it! It would be necessary for me, to write you a book, just not to forget any of the wonderful memories, which are the nest of my faithful friendship for you. Nothing went out of my memory, do you listen? Nothing! Because everything is there in the heart, and because there nothing dies... I have in me, when I think of you, Saint-Remy, our existence over there, I have it in me like a live photography of a charming Paradise.... Do you remember these hours of strolling about in bliss, during which one seems not to make anything, and where one makes so many things, of which the first is to be happy? "

Mistral will get this other confidence, dated July 8, 1863: " I should still be there, in this Paradise of Provence which was a real heaven for me?... I don't know if the valley of Saint-Clergue regrets me a litlle, and if, in this soul of nature I search for and which you possess, there is something which remembers me; but I know that I send to it big sighs, and that I left with it some of the sweetest hours and some of the most delicious emotions of my life ".


















Gounod has been living in Ville Verte for already a good month, when his wife and his son arrive to be with him: It's April 30th. Madame Gounod will occupy a room next to her husband - as for small Jean and for the maid who takes care of him, there will be a third one on the same floor and on the same side. What happiness for them all at this reunion! It's like a holiday: Pelissiero garnished the whole house with bouquets of flowery hawthorn, that smell so nicely. There is such " an exuberance of bloom " in the countryside, that Gounod and Mr Iltis bring back armfuls, in several trips, having the farmers and neighbours wondering: Ah! Really, you have to be a foreigner to use this "agranas ", forming everywhere wild hedges, for flower arrangements!...

Jean Gounod is delighted to find a companion of games, although first contacts are difficult between him and small Henry Rousset who speaks only Provençal. But childhood has its ways and its complicities. And soon they will be inseparable. While the maid - or Pelissiero - keep an eye on their games, Gounod and his wife visit the countryside and surroundings: she is anxious to discover the charms of every corner which were so praised to her... The couple takes the ritual walk of the Cours, goes to mass - How strange are these Parisian dresses! The very rare spouse of vineyard owners, who do not wear the arlesian dress, are not the last to admire. Madame Gounod's dresses are a sensation. But questions arise about Parisian morals: Does not mister Gounod, so distinguished, and so pious, bring his wife to the café? It's very surprising here, where a man would only agree to bring his wife in such a place on a votive day or on the evening of the fireworks: the rest of time, it would be, at very least, improper... But Madam Gounod will also attend - something never seen - the banquet offered by the town to her husband - a men's banquet, obviously...

















Because when Gounod announces his departure, he's told that an official banquet will be served in his honor, under Frédéric Mistral's presidency. Doctor Casimir Blain, the mayor, his assistants, Cyprien Gautier and Isidore Blanc, the magistrate Mr. de Raismes, the poet Marius Girard, the scholar Adolphe Michel - who translated into Provençal the notebook of the opera - and some other notabilities of Saint Rémy, will be part of it: Nobody ever saw so many frock coats and top hats at a meal been served in Ville Verte?... We are on Thursday , May 26, 1863: it is eight o'clock in the evening. Pelissiero surpassed herself in the preparation of the menu. Mr Iltis tastes it, naturally , in the company two other Alsatians of passage. Toasts are as numerous as the plates served . After the Mayor speech, while the champagne is sparkling in the glasses, Mistral gets up and pronounces, in provençal, the " brinde " of which we give here the translation: " So he will leave, Gentlemen, the Master musician - who came into the sun with us one morning! The valley of Saint-Clerg is quite sad: regrettably! - warblers and crickets will console him little - of the new harmonies he heard twittering. - In honour of Gounod, Friends, let us lift our glasses for a toast, - so that God for a long time maintains him at the Missal! May each glass ring harmoniously - in honour of Gounod the crystal clear musician - who, so far away, rings the murmurs of Provence! "

At the end of the banquet, everybody goesto the offices of the "Echo des Alpines", seated in the former house of the Tourrel d' Almeran-Maillane, and located in the rue de la Place (at present rue Carnot), where, in the large first floor room, the audience gets seated to have a preview of the saint - remoise Mireille . But let us listen to Marius Girard, witness to the scene: " There, in the light of the lamp which we used for our rehearsals, ( the Master) sat down on a lame and worm-eaten chair , in front of a puffing harmonium with yellowish and used keys. We made circle around him, and with his baritone voice, not very strong but beautifully resonant , Gounod unveiled for us his partition. He sang for us: the choir of " Magnanarelles ", of the "Moissonneurs", the piece of Ourias: " Si les filles d'Arles sont belles"; the duet of " Magali ", the song of "Andreloun" ; master Ramon's recitative: " Le chef de famille autrefois". We were delighted, we listened in religious silence. Gounod sang well and what he sang went up to our hearts... "

One imagines the emotion of those having just attended this strange "première", including the musician's who is going to leave all those who are there to express to him the feelings of all the population. To thank them for it, Gounod will make no speech: what better interpret than his music? But, as if he wanted to give more sense to his"Goodbye", and better contro his profound feelings, he sat once more, for the last time, at the old harmonium and... But let us listen again to Marius Girard: " Gounod sang for us, before we separated, Bérenger's famous song " Mon vieil habit " he had just finished writing recently. Never! No never! Anywhere, nowhere, in any concert, haveI ever heard such an interpretation: Underlining, putting so much in light all the delicate nuances of this adorable song. Each time when came the chorus: " Mon vieil habit ne nous séparons pas!" We had tears in our eyes ".
















It's like at the end of a family reunion, quite simply, that the banquet comes to an end . The Gounods will have a moving recollection of it, as soon as they arrive in their Saint-Cloud villa, the first thing the Master did, on June 2nd, 1863, will be to write to the Mayor de Saint-Remy, Casimir Blain: " To whom do I owe my first and most obliging thoughts, if it is not for you and to all who, as you, cherished and celebrated, so delicately, so warmly, my stay in this dear St-Remy to stay forever in my memory and my heart? Yes, your presence is still me, and I'll feel it for a long time: I see, and often talk around me, about all these good and affectionate faces, whose lively sympathy made of them, shall I dare say, fellow countrymen and brothers, from the unknown they were previously! It is today, far from you all, that I regret the little time I had to spend in your charming country, and how time flew when I was among you. Such a cordial reception, so full of spirit and effusions, gestures which braught me such sweet and profound emotion, had to have thorns and I was not mistaken when I told you that such good-byes would make my departure a very hard and painful separation. So I sent you a lot of tears, which might have gotten lost on the way, had they not gone directly to those that had me spilling them... Believe me, all, I won't forget anybody...So give my best to everyone, without naming anyone, which I could nevertheless be able to do with precision by naming all that were around the table of my good-bye banquet... Tell them nothing I received from them will be lost, and that I regret that " Mireille " is not to write again, so I could put more in it, of what they gave me... "

Mireille, however, will give total satisfaction to the author - the reception given to it by the public and the critics will be as cold as the one that they gave the previous ones. The partition will even know multiple adversities, caused especially by the opera singer who holds Mireille's role, Mrs Miolan-Carvalho. The first performance took place at the Théatre-Lyrique on March 19, 1864, in the presence of Mistral. Of the five acts in the original partition, the one qualifying as saint - remoise, only three will be kept- and that meant taking out numerous and lovely musical pages. It will be necessary to wait until 1939 when a pupil of Gounod, Henri Büsser, will conduct at the Paris Opera, theoriginal version, to be played again at the antique theater of Arles, on June 28, 1941, supervised by Raynaldo Hahn...

The reshaped version - the one that is always represented - was given in the valley of Saint-Clerg in 1913, then again in 1930, and in "Les Antiques" in 1963. These were, however, triumphant representations, which made Saint-Remy's heart beat, and is why the saint-rémois remain grateful to Charles Gounod to have tied his name to their town, in a glory of popular quality...


Marcel BONNET.


Printing office of the Southeast - St-Remy

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