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Music of Richard Wagner

Music of Richard Wagner

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  7290
Course No.  7290
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  47 minutes per lecture

Richard Wagner was one of history's greatest composers, a theater artist of extraordinary genius and vision, and one of the most controversial characters in the entire pantheon of Western art. More than a century after his death, his legacy is still debated, his influence still felt in our very conception of Western music and in the contemporary forms of opera and the complete spectrum of theater and literary arts.

  • As a composer, he rewrote the rules for opera—reenvisioning its musical forms and creating dazzling and unforgettable dramatic tapestries that melded orchestral magnificence with the soaring beauty of the human voice.
  • As a theater artist, he pioneered the "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total artwork" that incorporated music, drama, poetry, philosophy, myth, and ritual, building a theater of revolutionary design and creating musical dramas on a scale never before attempted in history.
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Richard Wagner was one of history's greatest composers, a theater artist of extraordinary genius and vision, and one of the most controversial characters in the entire pantheon of Western art. More than a century after his death, his legacy is still debated, his influence still felt in our very conception of Western music and in the contemporary forms of opera and the complete spectrum of theater and literary arts.

  • As a composer, he rewrote the rules for opera—reenvisioning its musical forms and creating dazzling and unforgettable dramatic tapestries that melded orchestral magnificence with the soaring beauty of the human voice.
  • As a theater artist, he pioneered the "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total artwork" that incorporated music, drama, poetry, philosophy, myth, and ritual, building a theater of revolutionary design and creating musical dramas on a scale never before attempted in history.
  • And, as a self-styled theorist, he pursued an agenda of militant German nationalism, anti-Semitism, elitist prejudice, and unbounded self-glorification in his often troubling philosophical tracts and essays.

Grappling with all of this in the 24 lectures of The Music of Richard Wagner, Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with a rich and multifaceted exploration of the trailblazing works and outsized life of this historically pivotal figure.

A Confounding and Double-Edged Legacy

In addition to the seminal importance of his works, the phenomenon of Wagner presents a persistent and thorny conundrum. His fierce nationalism, megalomaniacal egotism, and disturbing philosophies have tempted some to say that we must consider the man and the music as two separate things. Yet, Professor Greenberg shows in compelling detail that to try to separate the two is ultimately impossible—that a very strong case can be made that the man is the music, the music the man.

But what a combination! Dr. Greenberg, with his expert grasp of both the music itself and the human dimensions of Wagner's life story, demonstrates that those willing to engage with Wagner as a total package will find themselves in the presence of one of the most visionary creators civilization has ever produced.

Tracing Wagner's melodramatic life, from his desperate escapades outrunning creditors to his obsessive personal relationships, his utopian artistic schemes to his fanatical and voluminous writings, Professor Greenberg places the greatness of Wagner's music and theatrical creations within the context of his grandiose, extreme, and uncompromising approach to living.

In The Music of Richard Wagner, Professor Greenberg offers you a highly incisive and in-depth investigation of Wagner's art and life, reckoning with the unsettling dichotomies of one of Western art's most brilliant, influential, and unusual figures.

A Composer's View of Wagner's Genius

Professor Greenberg's rare breadth and depth of experience make him uniquely qualified to present the complexities of Wagner. An award-winning composer of international recognition—in addition to his acclaimed work as a music historian—he gives you a composer's insight into Wagner's music writing, as well as a historian's discerning perspective on Wagner's life and character.

Dr. Greenberg structures these lectures as an accessible, hands-on introduction to Wagner's celebrated works that form a core part of the standard operatic repertoire throughout the world. Your study of the musical riches, text, and dramatic action of each work leaves you free to enjoy them in performance with a full-bodied awareness of what you're hearing and seeing and with the tools to appreciate these great creations with increasing depth over time.

Your immersion in Wagner's art includes the following:

  • The Flying Dutchman: The haunting score and poetry of Wagner's first masterwork, based on the legend of an accursed sea captain, feature several of Wagner's key innovations. Investigate the Dutchman's groundbreaking musical structure, Wagner's new conception of dramatic text, and his growing self-liberation from the traditional operatic divisions of aria and recitative.
  • Tannhäuser: The saga of a medieval knight torn between two worlds reveals the flowering of Wagner's sublime music. Track the musical narrative through passionate and richly melodic solo arias, the gripping "festival of song," and the extended conclusion during which Wagner's music achieves divine transfiguration.
  • Tristan and Isolde: Wagner's crowning masterpiece, this searing exploration of human desire ranks as one of the most influential musical works of the 19th century. Probe the splendor of its vocal writing and orchestral textures, culminating in the iconic "Liebestod," perhaps the composer's greatest achievement.
  • The Ring of the Nibelung: Arguably the single most ambitious theater work ever created, Wagner's magnum opus comprises four grand-scale music dramas, set in an imagined world of magical beings, fallible gods, and heroic mortals. Dig deeply into The Ring's mythic and philosophical roots, its dramatic narrative, poetry, and breathtaking score—all of which reveal Wagner's mature greatness.
  • Parsifal: Wagner's allegory of the Knights of the Holy Grail jarringly sets a text propounding Aryan ethnic purity to some of the most glorious music in Western art. Study the creation of Parsifal in relation to Wagner's late writings, the drama's complex text, and its transcendent musical highpoints.

Reconceiving the Art of Opera

Tracing the remarkable arc of Wagner's career, you investigate his early operas, the key influence of Weber, and the emergence of a distinctly German operatic tradition as fundamental to his inspiration. You follow the stunning evolution of his art, as he rejects the conventions of popular opera and becomes the only major operatic composer to also write his own texts, laden with myth and symbol, redefining his later works as "music dramas."

  • You also grasp his defining musical innovations, including
  • his obliteration of the distinction between recitative, aria, and ensemble in favor of nonstop dramatic action;
  • his integral use of leitmotivs (short musical ideas directly associated with a character, object, or idea), developing them and linking them as compelling musical subtext;
  • his use of the orchestra in a grand, symphonic partnership with the singers, evoking action and psychological conditions through the music alone.

A Toweringly Complex Character

The sheer outlandishness of Wagner's life makes for an endlessly intriguing story.

You learn about the backstage fistfight that derailed the opening of his opera The Ban on Love, and about his disastrous mismanagement of money, leading to his completion of the opera Rienzi in a Paris debtor's prison. You follow his involvement in revolutionary politics in Saxony, forcing his daring escape to Switzerland in disguise.

You witness the tragicomic fiasco of Tannhäuser's premiere in Paris, and the miraculous intervention of the "mad" king Ludwig of Bavaria, who saved Wagner from the jaws of creditors and bankrolled the writing of his late masterworks.

In his writings and letters, you probe deeply into Wagner's thought, philosophical views, and public actions. You also study his evolving views on art and his own mission—his aversion to opera as "entertainment"; the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy on his music; his core belief in myth as essential to an art that would revitalize and redeem human civilization.

Reflecting on his essays, including "Art and Revolution," "Jewishness in Music," and "Opera and Drama," you investigate the often contradictory—and hypocritical—aspects of his personality: his self-identification as a political revolutionary and simultaneous deep links to aristocrats; his virulent anti-Semitism and simultaneous identity as a free-thinking, liberal artist. And, reflecting the nationalist spirit of his time, you track his core desire to make "German Art in the service of a German national identity," even as he created a body of works whose communicative power transcends any national boundary.

With Professor Greenberg's passionate and razor-sharp commentary, you plumb the fabulous mystery of this man who—notwithstanding his own extreme narcissism, grandiose posturing, and often inhumane views—gave the world something of deeply compelling and universal resonance: a music of great genius and a poetry that reveals the human psyche in the most unflinching terms. An art in which, if we look deeply, we inescapably find ourselves.

Join us, in The Music of Richard Wagner, for this extraordinary encounter with art, history, and the dimensions of the human spirit.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Escape from Riga
    Wagner's grandiose, difficult character and massive achievements constitute a fascinating and controversial legacy. First, consider Wagner's outsized egotism, material self-indulgence, and fanatical philosophies as ultimately inseparable from the grandeur, length, and fantasy of his music dramas. Then, enter the events of his life through his early musical career, his volatile marriage, and his debt-ridden struggles as an opera conductor. Finally, conclude with his daring escape by land and sea from Riga, fleeing creditors. x
  • 2
    London, Paris, and Rienzi
    Trace the professional disappointments of Wagner's stay in London, followed by the extreme financial hardships of his years in Paris, as he composes, sustained by a dogged belief in his own predestined greatness. Then study his opera Rienzi—the key musical content of its overture and "Almighty Father" aria, and its story elements as they mirror Wagner's heroic self-conception. Follow the composer's return to Germany and Rienzi's triumphant premiere in Dresden, which established his career. x
  • 3
    What to Do about Germany?
    Wagner's music and ideals were fired by the German nationalism that emerged from the Napoleonic wars. Chart the dramatic events of Napoleon's continental conquest, his crushing defeat, and the power shifts leading to a united Germany. Continue with Wagner's early life and the issues surrounding his paternity that found expression in the plot of Siegfried. Learn also about Wagner's infatuation with the theater and the "epiphanies" that led to him becoming a composer. x
  • 4
    The Rise of German Opera
    This lecture explores Wagner's early operatic works in the context of the newly emerging German operatic tradition. Study the elements of Weber's landmark Der Freischütz, incorporating Germanic folklore and the melodic sensibility of German folk song. Then trace Wagner's metamorphosis from "wastrel" student to opera composer through his early music writing and attempts at theatrical works. Focusing on his early opera The Fairies, identify his extraordinary craftsmanship and the influences of Rossini and Weber. x
  • 5
    The Flying Dutchman, Part 1
    First, learn about Wagner's voluminous prose writing, used to develop and prioritize his creative agenda, views, and philosophies. Also track the creation and disastrous premiere of his second opera, The Ban on Love. In his first masterwork, The Flying Dutchman, consider his conception of its text as a poem rather than a libretto, his integral adoption of leitmotiv, and the Dutchman's entrance scene as it leaves behind the conventional operatic constructs of recitative and aria. x
  • 6
    The Flying Dutchman, Part 2
    Wagner's deep identification with the displaced, misunderstood figure of the Dutchman gives the opera the quality of a spiritual diary. Follow in detail the unfolding of the narrative and the opera's groundbreaking structure rooted in four main musical "events." Study the poetry and rich musical textures of the heroine's ballad, the lovers' contrapuntal duet, and the "moment of truth" culminating in the protagonists' transfiguration through love, a theme that was to become central to Wagner's work. x
  • 7
    Dresden and Tannhäuser, Part 1
    Consider Wagner's working methods and the compositional processes with which he brought a score to life. Then trace his struggles in Dresden following his first success, leading to the creation of Tannhäuser, based in the legend of a medieval minnesinger or poet/minstrel. Study the opera's first act, highlighting the soaring melodies of the anti-hero Tannhäuser's renunciation of the love of Venus, and the musical unfolding of his return to earth to seek a destiny of another kind. x
  • 8
    Tannhäuser, Part 2
    You continue with a scene-by-scene study of the dramatic and musical events of the opera, depicting the minstrel knight's inner battle between the profane lure of Venus and his earthly love, Elizabeth. Explore the musical riches of Elizabeth's passionate aria, the central "festival of song" and the "Pilgrim's Choir," one of Wagner's iconic creations, as Elizabeth offers her own life to redeem Tannhäuser as the music itself carries us to a glorious, divine realm. x
  • 9
    Lohengrin, Part 1
    Wagner began work on Lohengrin with his reputation as a trailblazer firmly established. Begin your study with the groundbreaking overture, with its "celestial" melody evoking the Holy Grail. Continue with act I as the mythic knight Lohengrin arrives to fight a "trial by combat," defending the falsely accused Elsa. Highlighting Elsa's heartfelt prayer to God, Lohengrin's entrance, and his "swan song," this lecture elucidates the dramatic continuity of Wagner's writing, as he increasingly blurs opera's traditional conventions. x
  • 10
    Lohengrin, Part 2
    For the conclusion of Lohengrin, this lecture focuses on the character development and dramatic action that propel the opera. Explore the masterful interchange between the disgraced knight Telramund and his wife, Ortrud; their deception of the heroine Elsa; and Elsa's unwitting betrayal of Lohengrin, as well as the opera's complex denouement, as Wagner brings "real-time" immediacy to the majestic musical narrative. Learn also about Lohengrin's premiere under the auspices of the great pianist/composer Franz Liszt. x
  • 11
    The Escape from Dresden, Exile, and Essays
    Focusing on Wagner's five-year hiatus from composing, trace his political activities amid the revolutionary turmoil of 1848–1849, which led to his escape to safety in Switzerland. During his years of exile in Zurich, he wrote a series of seminal essays, expressing currents of thinking that deeply influenced his later works. In particular, explore his views on art and society, his anti-Semitism, and the ideas that encapsulate his path from opera to "music drama." x
  • 12
    Tristan and Isolde, Part 1
    Track Wagner's intense "spiritual communion" with a young married woman in Zurich and how this passion is mirrored in his masterwork, Tristan and Isolde. Then define Wagner's key innovations with leitmotiv and his use of the orchestra. In Tristan's overture and act I, grasp his use of harmonic tension and dissonance to express sexual tension and unconsummated passion. Focus on the musical dialogue of the "drink-death" scene between the two lovers, culminating in their sublime duet. x
  • 13
    Tristan and Isolde, Part 2
    The musical and dramatic conclusion of Tristan and Isolde is one of Western art's greatest moments. Begin with the lovers' extended "conversation" in act II, as they create a shared vision of final ecstasy and union in death, carried by the rich, constantly shifting harmonies of Wagner's mature musical language. In act III, focus on Tristan's emotional interior monologues and finally Isolde's transcendent "Liebestod," revealing their transfiguration. Conclude with assessments of the nature and magnitude of Wagner's achievement. x
  • 14
    In tracing Wagner's tumultuous personal journey of the 1860s, learn about the disastrous premiere of Tannhäuser in Paris and the unraveling of the composer's first marriage, followed by years of hardship spent seeking performances and fleeing creditors. Then delve into two life-changing events: Wagner's professional dreams flourish under the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, allowing him to create his late masterworks; and he meets Cosima von Bülow, daughter of Liszt, beginning a pivotal relationship. x
  • 15
    The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Part 1
    Now, follow the genesis of The Mastersingers as it took shape as an artistic and autobiographical tract amid further personal upheavals for the composer. Enter the culture and history of medieval "mastersinging" and the unfolding plot of the drama, centering on a singing competition for the hand of the heroine Eva. Study the knight Walter's pointedly avant garde aria, as he receives the exact criticism from the mastersingers that Wagner himself had endured over the years. x
  • 16
    The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Part 2
    Wagner's self-identification with the characters of mastersinger Hans Sachs and the knight Walter drives the narrative of The Mastersingers. In act II, study the musical action of Wagner's comic set piece in which the villain-buffoon Beckmesser attempts to serenade Eva as Sachs "judges" his preposterous singing. In the conclusion of the drama, witness the events leading to the final song competition, pitting Beckmesser against Walter and ending with Walter's resplendent "Prize Song," redeeming him (and Wagner) as an artist-innovator. x
  • 17
    The Ring, Part 1
    This lecture charts the creation of the monumental Ring cycle and the extraordinary story of Wagner's struggles to build a unique theater for its presentation in Bayreuth. Also study the narrative structure of the Ring's first drama, The Rhinegold, and its stunning orchestral prelude. In the opening scene, track the musical confrontation between the three Rhine maidens and the dwarf Alberich as he learns of the power of the gold they guard and acts to steal it. x
  • 18
    The Ring, Part 2
    Now follow the unfolding action of The Rhinegold as the devious god Wotan pays the builders of his castle Valhalla by seizing the stolen gold of Alberich—and the power-granting ring Alberich made from it. Explore the key musical episodes, including the fire god Loge's "Narration," the comic sequence in which Wotan and Loge outwit Alberich, and Alberich's bitter curse on the coveted ring that Wotan takes from him. x
  • 19
    The Ring, Part 3
    The Valkyrie, second drama of The Ring, introduces Wagner's iconic warrior princess, Brünnhilde. Track the narrative scene by scene, focusing on numerous examples of Wagner's musical storytelling, as Brünnhilde determines to help illicit lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, crossing her father, Wotan. Hear the dramatic power of Wagner's writing for the "heldentenor" Siegmund, the famous "Ride of the Valkyries," the passionate interchange between Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, and the poignant parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde. x
  • 20
    The Ring, Part 4
    As a prelude to Siegfried, the third drama, reflect on the integral role of myth and symbol in Wagner's works. In the drama's opening, encounter the uncouth, "unmoral" figure of Siegfried, orphaned son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, as he discovers his true identity. Study Siegfried's brilliant "Forging Song," where he recasts the broken sword of his father, and the "Forest Murmurs" sequence, as he waits to test himself against the dragon Fafner, present holder of the ring. x
  • 21
    The Ring, Part 5
    In the compelling conclusion of Siegfried, the hero faces trials leading him to destroy the old world order of his predecessors. Encounter musical highlights, including Siegfried's highly charged confrontation with Wotan and the exquisite duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In the opening of The Twilight of the Gods, The Ring's final drama, follow Siegfried's journey to the kingdom of the Gibichungs, where he is duped by the evil Hagen—who covets the ring—into betraying Brünnhilde. x
  • 22
    The Ring, Part 6
    Concluding The Ring, this lecture investigates the complex resolution of the drama, as the deception of Siegfried sets in motion the ultimate undoing of Hagen, the house of Gibichung, Siegfried himself, and finally the kingdom of the gods. Grasp the musical heart of the denouement, from the dark "Oath Trio" to the final, majestic solo of Brünnhilde, revealing her as the true protagonist, redeemer, and bringer of a new "Age of Man." x
  • 23
    Parsifal, Part 1
    Wagner's final music drama combines some of Western art's greatest music with a text representing a seething tract on Aryan racial purity. First, learn about Wagner's deranged and irrational late writings, as related to the genesis of Parsifal. Then, study the complex narrative—as the young innocent Parsifal enters the corrupt kingdom of the wounded Amfortas, guardian of the Holy Grail—highlighting the thematically rich prelude and Amfortas's dramatically beautiful "Blood Solo." x
  • 24
    Parsifal, Part 2
    In the resolution of Parsifal, discover the dramatic action and sublime musical highpoints of the work. Delve into the critical scene between Parsifal and the seductress Kundry, focusing on her glowing, lyric aria. In the final act, witness the return of Parsifal as a Christ-like figure and hear the musical "passion" of Amfortas and the otherworldly orchestral postlude. Conclude with reflections on the interpretation of Parsifal, the death of Wagner, and the provocative questions surrounding his legacy. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

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Rated 3.7 out of 5 by 35 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Focus on the Music, Not the Man Robert Greenberg is not in any way humorous although he obviously believes he is. His lack of professionalism is particularly evident in his attack on Wagner's physical appearance (he did a similar thing in the course on Beethoven's symphonies when he mocked the composer's digestive problems). Greenberg may know quite a bit about music, but his personal attack on Wagner is repulsive. If you wish to hear an unfunny clown discuss Wagner, then purchase this course. If you wish a thoughtful, instructive analysis of the man's music, then i suggest you go elsewhere. August 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The original lord of the rings I have enjoyed many other of Prof Greenberg's courses, and this was the last one which I had been putting off for years because the subject was not one that I had much interest in. I knew about Wagner's association with German nationalism which later became twisted by Hitler, but through the course I learned more about his philosophical underpinnings with regards to Schopenhauer. The professor does make the biographical narrative interesting, starting with his dramatic escape from Riga, and how the sailors' chants inspired a scene from The Flying Dutchman. He starts with his first operatic success Rienzi, and covers the operas mostly in sequential order. He explains the use of musical leitmotifs, and does include enough illustrations to get the point across, most memorably the drink death one from Tristan and Isolde. I was not a fan of Wagner before the course, but it motivated me to want to see them in person. I even ran out and bought the DVD for Parsifal in anticipation of the last lecture, before knowing how racist it actually is. I will try to experience the ring cycle at least on Met opera video, if not in person in Bayreuth or the Houston grand opera cycle from 2013-2016. Just learning about the ring cycle makes the course worth the price, but you also get to learn about the Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, The Meistersingers of Nuremberg, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and my favorite just from hearing Greenberg discuss it, Thannhauser. You also get to learn about Wagner the man, and his large ego and larger than life personality. In the end, if he motivates you to listen to the music or want to see any of Wagner's musical dramas, then he has accomplished his goal. August 9, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by I know a lot more about Wagner than I did... I had always thought that I should know more about Wagner than I did despite extensive music training, and now I do. Professor Greenberg takes the listener through several of Wagner's works, pointing out highlights and helping you to understand why people love Wagner. He also discusses Wagner's life, noting the problematic aspects of the man's personality. My only criticism of the course is the inadequate volume of the music, requiring you to sit with the control in your hand so you can turn up the volume of the music and then turn it down again for the lecture. Otherwise, this is a fine set of disks for those who want to understand (maybe) what people find entrancing about Wagner. June 8, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Not Perfect, but How Could it Have Been? My friends (as the good Professor himself is wont to remark), you have all been spoiled beyond recognition. While it may cleanse the souls of some of you who chose to trash this course, you clearly expect the Holy Grail every time Greenberg pursues his teaching mission. I tell you all from the start that total success with this project is akin to solving Rubik's cube in five seconds; it simply cannot be done. To suggest, however, as some of you have, that not only did Professor Greenberg fail his task but that someone else could have made a better go of it is foolishness. Yes, I had my quarrels with some elements: too much biographical narrative (although i understand why it was attempted), the poor quality of some of the music excerpts (yes, I know some of them were recorded live), the intentional de-emphasis on leitmotifs, the anglicizing of the German and a few others less worthy of mention. But please stop complaining about Greenberg's humor; it is his signature, and his audience over the years has, in my view, embraced it. In addition, please remember that, if you already purport to be something of a Wagner scholar (which some of you have suggested), you simply are not the intended audience for this course. It is meant for those who, but for Professor Greenberg's efforts, would never get to first base with the complexity of this canon. Please give him credit, rather than blame, for highlighting that Wagner, the man, was simply a waste of valuable oxygen. He also takes the time to explain how Wagner, the composer, simply invented an entire new realm of music. And he causes us really to think how some people may be unable totally to ignore the former merely to appreciate the latter. This is a brave, committed and largely successful introduction to one of the virtually insoluble labyrinths of Western music. May 17, 2014
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