Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony: Art Transcending Politics

This essay originated a few years ago in a request by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum for articles on the topic of Politics and Transcendence.  The topic is not only compound but complex, associating itself with numerous difficulties.  The term transcendence, for example, usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence.  Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist.  In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, indeed, the Western nations find themselves subjugated without exception under such anti-transcendent regimes.  The liberal elites of Europe and North America, like their Jacobin precursors, promulgate a totalitarian doctrine that opposes itself to all inherited hence also to all dissenting ideas or forms.  Among these ideas or forms are those of the aesthetic realm.  Modernity strongly prefers functionality to beauty and agitation of the emotions to genuine tragic pathos.  It prefers mediocrity to merit and therefore downplays the implications of art, and wherever it can it replaces art with politicized kitsch.  Art participates in the sacred, where it originates, and, as sacred, art poses a threat to the pervasive denial of transcendence.  Artistic achievement demonstrates, moreover, the inequality of talent; it establishes standards that undermine the regime’s goal of equality.  Modern life is nevertheless replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but it is merely the pseudo-transcendence previously mentioned.  Fear and pity pose a danger; entertainment and diversion serve to mollify the masses.

Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.”  It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty.  Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence.  Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity.  Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon.  In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.”  According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.”  In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.

Berdyaev, who before he became a theologian began as an aesthetician, frequently comments on the relation of art to transcendence and to the mystic experience.  In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), Berdyaev turns his attention briefly to music, noting that, like everything else in modernity, music has become banal and purely functional, giving what he calls “illusory transport to another world,” while being in subservience to the empirical order.  It is the case nevertheless that “in the spirit of music there is prophecy of incarnate beauty yet to be.”  Berdyaev intuits, for example, that “Beethoven was a prophet”; by contrast Alexander Scriabin, who made himself out to be a vates and a mystagogue, succeeds only in articulating “a sense of foreboding and unconquered chaos.”  Berdyaev likes to write in propositions: “The creative act of the artist is essentially the non-submission to this world and its distortions”; and “the creative act is a daring upsurge past the limitations of this world into the world of beauty.”  Because “the artist believes that beauty is more real than the distortion of the world,” it follows that “there can be no art without an impulse to beauty.”  In the Twentieth-Century phase of modernity, the situation has become extremely acute.  In this phase, “the mechanical civilization… reducing everything to one level, depersonalizing man and depriving him of value” has led to a condition of “pseudo-being, illusory being, being turned inside out.”

Until the ideological governments of the last twenty-five years in Western Europe and North America, the most ardently anti-transcendent regimes were those of the Communist polities, whose model first imposed itself in Russia in the form of the Soviet Union after the coup-d’état of October 1917.  The Leninist regime took the form of a tyrannical and totalizing police-agenda: Its committees strove with implacable fanaticism to take in charge every aspect of the conquered and humiliated society.  This Gleichschaltung of everything with the state included the arts, which in turn included music.  The commissars immediately imposed the categories of the “bourgeois” and the “revolutionary” on the arts, making of the former an anathema and making of the latter a formula to which all artistic production – for everything under Communism is “production” – must conform.  In August of 1934, at the All-Union Congress of Writers, with novelist Maxim Gorky as figurehead, the formula underwent Stalinist reformulation as the new code of “Socialist Realism.”  Although the Congress confined itself nominally to literature the prescription implied a wider application to the totality of the arts.  (How could it not?)  The official bulletin of the occasion states how – the “representatives of almost all nations inhabiting the Soviet Union” having spoken during the event and having “raised literary problems in their own way” – a unifying theme had emerged from the voluble so-called diversity: “The cause of socialism.”  The same document celebrates the victory of Socialist Realism over what it calls “formalism” and “the upholders of formalism among us.”  Formalist art is “art without content,” the “reflection of rottenness and decay of the bourgeois world.”  Socialist-Realist artworks by contrast must be “so fashioned that the mass reader can understand them.”  Such artworks must eschew all forbidden content.

The restrictions of the Socialist-Realist mandate had already extended themselves to music explicitly through the establishment of the journal Sovietskaya Muzyka in 1933, the editorial strictures of which found reinforcement in the decrees of the Congress of Writers.  Writing in Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia 1917-1970 (1972), Boris Schwarz notes how, under the barely disguised existential threat, “advanced composers turned conventional, and conventional composers became commonplace.”  The desideratum of any composer hoping to keep his position in the planned economy of the ideological state was to become “inoffensive”; he achieved this goal by conforming to the “new respectability” in the arts.  Schwarz quotes from the first number of Sovietskaya Muzyka, where the editors of the journal set it forth that “the main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright, and beautiful.”  As Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), who grasped keenly the entanglement of politics and the arts in his native country, pointed out in the fifth of his Norton Lectures of 1939, “The Avatars of Russian Music”: “The Marxist theory that maintains that art is only a ‘superstructure based on the conditions of production’ has had a consequence that art in Russia is nothing more than an instrument of political propaganda at the service of the Communist Party and the government.”

Stravinsky, who perhaps read Berdyaev, makes an observation apropos Russian music that runs parallel to many an observation made by Berdyaev himself on Bolshevism’s relation to authentic culture whether in Russia or anywhere else.  Ideology pretends to rationality, but invariably encumbers itself with contradictions and unprincipled exceptions.  Insofar as the Revolution constitutes an assault on actual Russian culture, including Orthodox Christianity, in the dispensation of which the Russian polity anciently founded itself, the ideology that the Revolution propagates, far from organizing creative activity within a legitimate speculative system, only creates spiritual chaos and creative sterility.  It is, moreover, not of the people in the least, but rather deracinated and anemic – belligerently abstract and anti-human.  Thus, “without a speculative system, and lacking a well-defined order in cogitation, music has no value, or even existence, as art.”  This will be so, as Stravinsky adds, because “art presupposes a culture, an upbringing, an integral stability of the intellect, and Russia of today [1939] has never been more completely devoid of these.”

In such remarks, Stravinsky reveals himself as a respectable analyst of political modernity in its relation, or opposition, to creativity and art.  Concerning the Soviet musical scene in the 1930s and 40s, however, Stravinsky undoubtedly misinterpreted certain features.  In the case of the Leningrad composer Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), for example, Stravinsky could not penetrate beyond the rhetoric of Soviet musical propaganda.  Stravinsky is aware of the Soviet journalistic celebration of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937), which carries the ominous subtitle “A Soviet Composer’s Response to Just Criticism,” but he takes its verbiage, in a review of the premier performance written by Alexei Tolstoy, at face-value.  For Tolstoy, the score’s Scherzo “reflects the athletic life of the happy inhabitants of the Union.”  In regard to Tolstoy’s fatuous periphrasis of Shostakovich’s score, Stravinsky’s indignation claims justice.  The review is, as Stravinsky characterizes it, “a consummate masterpiece of bad taste, mental infirmity, and complete disorientation in the recognition of the fundamental values of life.”  What about Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in its actuality?

The Fifth Symphony is the direct precursor-score of the Seventh or “Leningrad” Symphony (1942), the Sixth (1939) being something of a detour in the composer’s symphonic trajectory.  (The Sixth’s asymmetrical structure implies that Shostakovich abandoned the score without supplying the large-scale Finale that would have balanced the first movement.)  The story of the Fifth, which still figures in the books as the exemplary Soviet Symphony, an affirmation of Communist legitimacy, makes itself relevant to the story of the Seventh.  In 1936, the Soviet musical establishment registered its displeasure with Shostakovich’s Fourth, which had gone into rehearsal with a public performance imminent.  The charge was a familiar one: “Formalism.”  Given the increasing ferocity of Stalin’s police-state, the composer prudently withdrew the score.  Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was at the same time in production both in Leningrad and Moscow, where audiences packed the houses steadily.  Stalin attended a 1936 performance in Moscow.  Immediately afterwards, an article appeared in Pravda, rumored to have been written by Stalin himself, under the title “Muddle Instead of Music.”  As well as exemplifying “aesthetic formalism,” Lady Macbeth, according to the editorial, was “spasmodic,” “convulsive,” and a “petit-bourgeois distortion.”  Shostakovich told Solomon Volkov in an interview (one of those that form the basis for Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1979) that “meetings were organized to drum the ‘muddle’ into everyone’s head”; he added that “it went on as if in a nightmare [and] everyone turned away from me.”  The security police had recently arrested and shot Shostakovich’s longtime friend and sometime intercessor Marshal of the Red Army Mikhail Tukhachevsky.  Shostakovich himself expected arrest at any time and took to sleeping the stairwell of his apartment building with his basic articles in an overnight bag so as to minimize the ordeal for his family when fate inevitably descended.

Instead of sending the Black Maria to haul Shostakovich away, the dictator made it known that the nation’s most illustrious composer should take heed of “just criticism”; he should act to redeem himself.  The Fifth Symphony nominally constituted that act – but it consisted otherwise, in fact, than in a craven instance of kowtowing to the Oriental Despot.  The Fifth became the first of Shostakovich’s “dual” works, incorporating superficial features to please the regime while being encoded (that seems the only useful word) with signs and gestures that sympathizers would recognize as dissident.  Shostakovich made the most brazen – and to this day the least understood – of these gestures in the Finale.  Under Socialist Realism, art, including music, must be optimistic.  The typical Soviet symphony thus found an inevitable and stereotypical consummation in a brassy, rhythm-driven movement in the major-key on the pattern audible, for example, in Vano Muradeli’s hackneyed First Symphony (1938).  The Finale of the Fifth cleverly parodies the formulaic gesture.  That Finale is, in fact, a musical representation of anti-transcendence although Shostakovich used no such word in divulging its secret.  Nevertheless Shostakovich told Volkov, “I never thought about exultant finales.”  He explained that: “The rejoicing is forced, created under duress…  It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”

Shostakovich characterized the Fifth as “irreparable tragedy.”  The regime, as he expected, heard only what it wanted to hear, the adulation of its supremacy, with plenty of trumpets and drums.  The state thought its prodigal rehabilitated; but as the abortive Sixth Symphony indicates, Shostakovich remained shaken, and yet at the same time he felt his outrage growing.  Then came 22 June 1941 – the catastrophe of the German invasion and with it sudden new demands for artists to serve of the cause of socialism.  When the Seventh Symphony, bearing the subtitle “Leningrad,” had its premiere performance in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, it became an international sensation.  Stalin arranged for microfilms of the score to travel by air, sea, and land to major orchestras in the West, where such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, and William Steinberg immediately played it in concert and recorded it.  The context of the war induced people to accept the Soviet explanation of the Seventh as embodying the determination of the proletariat to resist fascist aggression.  All the formulaic gestures of musical Socialist Realism were present in the score, which Shostakovich had composed as a symphonic epos.  The Bolero-like second subject of the opening Allegretto, with its long-drawn dynamic crescendo, befell ideological auditors as particularly exciting.  What could this be but the symphonic depiction of the Wehrmacht as it crossed the Union’s borders and began to make a pincers around Leningrad?

The Soviet misreading of Shostakovich’s new symphony worked itself out by an internal, almost Pavlovian logic.  To borrow Berdyaev’s term there was no coherent speculative system in place among the governing deculturated elites that would permit them to cognize the symphony, once Shostakovich’s cannily placed stimuli had triggered their collective nod.  A good deal more disturbing is the Western reaction to the Seventh.  In its way, this Western response was and remains even more anti-transcendent than its Soviet counterpart.  Writing in The Herald Tribune (15 October 1942), Virgil Thomson judged that the Seventh was “apparently designed for easy listening, perhaps even with the thought to making it possible for the radio listener to miss some of the repetitions without losing anything essential.”  One wonders to what exactly Thomson was attending.  In Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, Schwarz, while not fully endorsing the “critical consensus” that he cites, nevertheless opines that the Seventh “overstates and overtalks.”  More recently, the arch-modernist composer-conductor, and lifetime French Communist Party member, Pierre Boulez, was quoted, in the BBC Music Magazine for 25 September 2014, as saying about Shostakovich, he “plays with clichés,” so that the music is “like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.”  Commentators have called the Seventh a Mahlerian symphony – and not without justification – so that the late Mr. Boulez’s words may be taken as applying to it.

If the Seventh Symphony were not the colossus of all Soviet “war symphonies,” and if it were not the cheap article that artistically avant-garde commentary avers it to be, what then would it be?  In Testimony, Shostakovich tells Volkov that “the Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack.”  Whereas “I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler,” Shostakovich says, “I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s order.”  Indeed, Shostakovich imagined his score in the beginning as an orchestral-choral elegy to Stalin’s victims with a religious meaning like Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930).  Circumstances would not permit so forthright an approach.  When the concept of the Seventh became purely instrumental, eschewing the verbal specificity of setting a text; then, as Volkov puts it in Shostakovich and Stalin (2004), “the religious content of the Seventh went into the subtext, but continued to reverberate.”.  In Testimony, Shostakovich comes straight to the point: “If the Psalms were read before every performance of the Seventh, there might be fewer stupid things written about it.”  The composer also tells Volkov how, “even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn’t a single family who hadn’t lost someone.”  In The Magical Chorus (2008), Volkov writes, “Russian audiences were extremely sensitive to [the Seventh’s] religious overtones and they wept at every performance in the Soviet Union”; he adds, “In the difficult war-years Shostakovich’s music had a cathartic effect, and the concert hall substituted for the church, proscribed in socialist life.”

In light of these remarks it becomes possible to suggest the significance of some specifically musical details of the score.  For example, the Seventh declares itself to be in the key of C-Major, but much of the work is in related – sometimes distantly related – minor keys that make evident its tragic rather than its propagandist character.  The composer’s insistence on minor-key harmonies disquiets the listener for most of the Seventh’s eighty-minute duration, making inexplicable Hugh Ottaway’s description of the score in BBC Music Guides: Shostakovich Symphonies (1978), as “one of the happiest of works,” animated by an “underlying joy [and] peace of mind.”  (Again – to what was the man listening?)  The Seventh’s opening “Leningrad” theme, while buoyant and upward-climbing, is nevertheless conditioned by gestures that choke or oppress its wont to ascend and develop.  The theme is angular and a strident, resembling the sharp-edged, aggressive material that led Soviet musicology to condemn the Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth as “formalist.”  Disparaging critics of the Seventh point to the non-developmental character of the Bolero-like second subject which begins quietly after what could be called the chastening of the first subject and its stricken subsidence into fragmented motifs.  Non-development is precisely the point.  The tune is deliberately idiotic, but it steadily gathers idiotic strength and ferocity.  If the Finale of the Fifth were a representation of a subject being beaten with a stick, then this clownish march (it invites the label Djugashvili theme) would be the representation of the subject’s assailant.

The two middle movements of the Seventh – Moderato (Poco Allegretto) and Adagio – have elicited less commentary than the two outer movements.  The Moderato is a scherzo-substitute, in which a slightly waltz-like motif reminiscent of Alexander Glazunov’s pre-revolutionary Valses de concert carries on uncertainly and quietly until a vulgar, martial cortege (Djugashvili theme II) tramples it brutally.  The Adagio furnishes the Seventh with its apocalyptic core: The opening dirge for the strings alone is the self-evident vindication of Shostakovich’s own reference to the Psalms as the idea behind the symphony and to Volkov’s insistence that the symphony is a religious work – an instrumental Requiem for victims.  This Adagio is a searing catharsis, genuinely tragic, calling to mind Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.”  The Finale (Allegro non Troppo) begins in low growling in the wind section, proceeds quasi una passacaglia, to become the Resurrexit of the implied liturgy with the return – not in triumph, but in spiritual certainty tempered by its ordeal – of the first theme of the first movement.  Various critical pronouncements notwithstanding, Shostakovich’s score is remarkable for its prodigious use of a small number of basic musical motives, which continuously generate new thematic material in every movement.  Audiences responded – and continue to respond – to the pattern of meanings to which the network of thematic cross-references in Shostakovich’s ingenious composition gives rise.

“It is absurd,” writes Berdyaev in The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1935), “to think that the whole popular mass in Russia is penetrated by Marxian theory.”  No – but the whole mass of the population is permeated, or rather evacuated, by the obliteration of everything else except Marxian theory.  While it is the case, as Berdyaev writes, that “the modern dictatorship of ideas is based on the assumption that the spiritual life may be dealt with on exactly the same basis as the material life,” the spirit is nevertheless not a mere “epiphenomenon,” or what Marxists (Berdyaev’s “Marxians”) call a “superstructure.”  In the contemporary world, the populace is not fully penetrated by Leftism; but the Leftist regime has finagled to deprive the populace of any alternative to its intolerant Weltanschauung, which reduces everything to a material accident.  The mass is spiritually malnourished and disoriented.  When, as Berdyaev writes, the regime refuses to acknowledge anything beyond “race, nation, sex… money, class, social grouping, [or] party,” the beleaguered masses lose their “spiritual resistance to suggestion and possession.”  On the one hand there is the crowd and on the other there is – communion.

What are the agencies of contemporary “possession”?  Any reader of The Orthosphere can supply his own list.  Soviet masters could vainly order transcendence in endeavors like the Fourth Symphony (1986) of Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (born 1936) or Alexander Nemtin’s “completion” of Scriabin’s Mysterium (1996).  No one today has heard of, much less heard, these works.  Would an accomplishment like Shostakovich’s Seventh or “Leningrad” Symphony be possible today?  It seems vanishingly unlikely, but I remain open to refutation.


Nicolas Berdyaev: Freedom and the Spirit.  (In Russian 1927; English translation 1935 by an unidentified translator; a Semantron Press reprint 2008)
Nicolas Berdyaev: The Meaning of the Creative Act.  (In Russian 1916; English translation 1936 – translated by Donald A. Lowrie; a Semantron Press reprint 2009)
Gustave Le Bon: The Crowd.  (English translation, 1896 – the translator is unidentified; a Dover reprint 2002)
Hugh Ottaway: BBC Music Guides – Shostakovich Symphonies.  (University of Washington Press 1978)
Boris Schwarz: Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia 1917-1970.  (Norton 1972)
Igor Stravinsky: Poetics of Music.  (Norton 1947)
Solomon Volkov: The Magical Chorus – A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.  (Vintage 2008; English translation by Antonia W. Bouis)
Solomon Volkov: Shostakovich and Stalin.  (Alfred A. Knopf 2004; English translation by Antonia W. Bouis)
Solomon Volkov: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich.  (Harper and Row 1979; English translation by Antonia W. Bouis)

12 thoughts on “Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony: Art Transcending Politics

  1. Thanks, Thomas. This is one of my favorite works, and one of the most terrifying in the repertoire. I also appreciate the way you relate the 5th to the 7th.

    Some readers might be interested in my more detailed write-up of the invasion theme, which I think is completely appropriate for our time, and complements your description of the symphony overall. I called it “A Warning from Stalinist Russia.”

    Unfortunately, the video on which I based it has been taken down, so readers will need to use one of the videos you’ve provided, and the timing won’t be quite right. Still, one might get the sense in which the Invasion Theme describes the conditions we face today with the advance of “progressivism”.

  2. @Jake Freiwald. Yours is one of the best verbal descriptions of music that I have encountered. Writing about music entails plenty of difficulties. Almost always one has to fall back on metaphors. Your metaphors are strong and clear and, to my way of thinking, they match the musical “progress” of the middle of Shostakovich’s first movement perfectly. I recommend your analysis to anyone interested in DSCH and especially to those who share your judgment and mine on the excellence of the Seventh Symphony.

      • You are welcome. I would like to canvass you on a topic that has interested me for a long time. I have always harbored the suspicion that Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony is an incomplete work. The root of that suspicion is that Shostakovich’s compositions are almost invariably symmetrical — with the glaring exception of the Sixth. As it stands the two scherzos really go nowhere. I assume therefore that Shostakovich planned a fourth concluding movement on the same scale and with a similar tempo as the first movement. The finale, matching the mood of the first movement, the two outer movements would frame the scherzos and endow them with a meaningful irony. On the other hand — a gloomy conclusion would have put him back into the unenviable position in which he found himself when the Fourth Symphony was in rehearsal. What do you think?

      • I don’t know the sixth very well, certainly not as well as I know the 5th, 7th, and 10th, and I suspect you’re a much better listener than I am. I also don’t know its history, since the people I’ve learned from didn’t discuss it much.

        With that said:

        Your argument from symmetry has merit, but isn’t really convincing. I have a hard time seeing Shostakovich saying, “You know, I really think this symphony is okay so far, and I’d like to make it symmetrical like most of my other work, but it’s pretty tough [or “I need the money,” especially since he was rehabilitated to the Soviets at that time (I think), or “I just need to get this out there,” etc.], so to heck with it: Just publish.” That just doesn’t sound like him. What would be the motivating factor to publish an unfinished work as if it were finished?

        On the other hand, you’re right that he built these great symmetrical arcs in his music.

        Is there, perhaps, a meaning to be found in its unfinished state?

        We know that Shostakovich’s musical language was strongly encoded and subtle, but (in those works we understand) powerful enough to be understood by his fellow Russians. I was fortunate enough to hear the Fifth after learning what Shostakovich was like, and I recognized immediately how much it sounds like flattery shouted by a man splayed on a table. But that wasn’t how the officials in the USSR or the useful idiots in the West understood it. His meaning was couched subtly enough to escape their notice.

        Maybe there’s something latent in the Sixth’s imbalance that he thought people would understand, but was too subtle for most people to find?

        Is there anything in _Testimony_ about it?

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  5. Speaking as an erstwhile* patriot of the United States, I call the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth one of the strongest “black pills” I have ever encountered, the musical description of a country’s total fall.

    • *Erstwhile? How does one relate to a loved one whose “progress” toward dying has gone to the socio-political equivalent of dementia?!

  6. Pingback: Under the Iron Dome: Thomas Bertonneau on Transcendence – The Orthosphere


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