This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Still More Ladies with Brass

27 February 2021


Four steely-eyed young women
dressed in military style band uniforms
stand in a line wielding four long natural trumpets.
They are a formidable quartet.
You would not want to get too close.
Better to sit at the back of the hall.

The name of their ensemble was the

Fanfaren Bläserinnen
vom Damen Trompeter Corps

The Fanfare Windplayers
of the Traviata Ladies Trumpeter Corps
director A. Reiss

Giuseppe Verdi certainly knew how to write a good trumpet fanfare, but I don't think he put one into La Traviata, his opera about the tragic life of a courtesan. Though perhaps if he had seen this attractive quartet he might have been inspired to do so. This postcard never had a stamp or postmark but it likely dates from around 1910 to 1915. The note on the front "Damen bedienung" means Ladies Service.

Two weeks ago in Two Wise Guys, I wrote that I believe humor to be one of the most ephemeral of human sentiments. Music, that is the sound we hear, is likewise the most transitory of arts. Until the invention of the gramophone, music really existed only to musicians who performed it and people who were present to hear it. The image of the Traviata Ladies Fanfare Trumpeters doesn't tell us very much about the actual tunes that they played, or how they presented it to their audiences. There are few reviews or programs of their performances preserved. All we can do is speculate.
Their instruments are simple bugle-like horns which have no valves. They are longer than a modern B-flat trumpet and similar to the type of trumpet that was played in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Being without a mechanism to change the length of the instrument, a fanfare trumpet is limited to just a few pitches in a fixed key, about 8 notes, not in a scale, but spaced apart. 

All trumpets are meant to be played LOUD, which is the whole point of a fanfare. You don't announce the arrival of the Kaiser with a whisper. Usually a pair of tympani drums tuned to the trumpet key were included to add rhythmic interest. And if the drummer and trumpeters were on horseback, playing a processional piece in maestoso time with lots of double and triple tongued noise notes, you would hear the ultimate Grand Entrance.
That's what I imagine the Traviata Trompeters sounded like. But it's only my semi-educated guess. However, what I do know is that in the Germanic parts of Central Europe during the early 20th century, female trumpet ensembles were a hot thing in music. Whether in Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, or Prague, any place where there was music, there was likely a brass band of young women playing fanfare trumpets. 
* * *
 Before I introduce more Fanfaren Bläserinnen,
I recommend starting this video
 played by the Deutsche Trompeter Korps
under director Hans Freese.
It will give you an idea
of the music they made.


_ _ _

One might easily mistake this quartet of trumpeters as the same group, but they are subtly different. Their military-style uniforms and hussar shakos came from a different costume catalog, I think. And their trumpets have tassels instead of banner flags. But these four women do share the same no-nonsense attitude that the Traviata quartet displayed. This group was called:
Elite Damen Trompeter u. Humor. Gesangs
La Paloma

Elite Ladies Trumpet and Humorous Song Ensemble
director A. Bohm

It's hard to imagine what kind of funny songs these four young ladies sang when they weren't blowing their trumpets. Like I said before, humor doesn't preserve very well. This postcard was sent from Halle in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany on the 25 April 1914.

* * *

Here is another female trumpet quartet, but dressed in a more fetching feminine fashion of matching frocks, white hose and shoes. This group has banners on their trumpets. They are the:

des Damen Trompeterkorps „Germania

Fanfare Windplayers
of the Germania Ladies Trumpet Corps
director J. Schnur

The similarity of the Germania trumpeters to the Traviata and La Palomo groups is not by accident. All three postcards were published by the same studio, Nordische Kunstanstalt Ernest Schmid & Co., of Lübeck in northeast Germany near the North Sea. Perhaps because they are not in military uniform, these young women do smile a bit, but their trumpets would have blared just as loud. This postcard was sent from Darmstadt by a soldier using the free military Feldpost on 30 January 1915. His recipient was Fraulein Clärchen Funk of Dillenburg in Hesse.

 * * *

My next trumpet quartet are also from the same Lübeck publisher but here the photographer has changed the backdrop to a more domestic set. The caption on the postcard reads:

des Damenorchester „Monopol
Fanfare Windplayers
of the Monopol Ladies Orchestra
director Frau Rich. J. Meiser

The women wear matching skirts and aprons in, what I suppose, is a traditional German folk manner. Their trumpets have banners in two patterns. This postcard was never mailed but probably dates to the same period 1905 to 1918.

This quartet belonged to a larger ensemble of twelve musicians, eight women and four men. On this postcard the men are dressed in formal evening suits while the women wear military style costumes. The shoulder epaulettes, called swallow nests, were a distinctive mark of a bandsman's uniform. The caption on this card reads:
Erstklassiges Damen Trompeter Corps „Monopol
First Class Monopol Ladies Trumpeter Corps
Kapellmeister Richard Meiser

This postcard has a short message, but no postmark. It was probably included in a letter. It dates from around 1905-1915. 

* * *

Sometimes four was not enough. Six was better. This trumpet sextet was called the:

Damen Trompeter Corps „Rhenania”
Rhenania Ladies Trumpeter Corps
director: F. P. Hartwig

The six young women, carefully arranged left to right—short to tall, wear matching white dresses in a nautical fashion with sailor caps and collars. Their trumpets sport cord-wrapped grips with tassels. Rhenania is Latin for the Rhineland, the central part of Germany.

Their postcard was never posted. But like the Monopol trumpeters, the Rhenania women were members of a large musical ensemble.

This postcard shows their full band. There are eleven musicians, seven women and four men. The leader/director sits on the right. The caption reads:

Damen Blas Orchester „Rhenania”
Erstklassige Musik u. Gesaneinlagen
Rhenania Ladies Wind Orchestra
First class music and singing
director: Paul Hartwig

In the center row, four women raise their trumpets in what presumably was the typical playing position. Here the women wear matching folk style skirts and vests. Possibly this was a style particular to a German vocal ensemble. A Tyrolean folk song rendered while dressed in a military band uniform would look strange. This postcard was also never mailed but comes from the same period as the others. 

* * *

My last postcard is another trumpet sextet of young women, also outfitted in matching maritime fashion. Unlike the other cards printed in half-tone, this is a real photo with a caption neatly written along the top.

Damen Trompeter Corps „Weserlust”
Weserlust Ladies Trumpeter Corps
director: A. Miericke

Here the Weserlust lasses wear large floppy caps with shirts that have a sailor collar and neckerchief. Their shoes match but not their stockings. But unlike the Rhenania women's costumes, the Weserlust trumpeters appear in short pants, which I don't believe was regulation navy issue. Their trumpets have fringed banners. Weserlust was the name of an Ausflugslokal, a garden restaurant park on the Weser River in Bremen, Germany. It was established in 1894 with outdoor seating, bowling lanes, and a concert stage. Bremen, together with the port of Bremerhaven at the mouth of the Weser, is the second largest port in Germany. 

It is also well known through the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale the "Town Musicians of Bremen". In the story, four old domestic animals - a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster, after suffering a lifetime of hard work, feel neglected by their masters. The four animals decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. I don't think fanfare trumpets or sailor suits feature in the tale. 

This postcard was sent from Wilhelmshaven, Germany on 2 June 1914. Wilhelmshaven is just a short distance on the coastland west of Bremerhaven. 

A trumpet with valves makes a fine melodic voice within a band or orchestra. The natural trumpet that was used in these ladies' bands makes a splendid, even heroic sound too, but without valves its limitation on notes and key center doesn't offer much musical variety. 

A century later it's very hard to appreciate what it was about Fanfaren Bläserinnen that appealed to German audiences. Was it the martial music they played? As far as I know, these female trumpeters never performed while marching in parades or mounted on horses. They were essentially just a pretty imitation of male military musicians. Their full brass bands no doubt played a wider repertoire, drawing from opera and symphonic composers, but the music would need to be arranged specifically for an individual band's instrumentation. Waltzes and polkas don't typically start with trumpet fanfares, but maybe these ensembles found a way to add that musical color. It's a curious puzzle why they were so popular in German culture at the time. 

For more evidence on this musical fad of German ladies' brass bands,
check out my previous stories on this peculiar subject.

I can promise you haven't heard the last of
of these brazen ladies of brass.

As one final musical treat,
here is the U.S. Army Historical Trumpets Fanfare
playing Guard À Vous by Henri Senée.

See if you can spot the woman.
_ _ _

_ _ _

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where three's company
and four is a party.

Zeppelin Kommt!

20 February 2021


Look at that!
It's unbelievable!
It's fantastic!

How is that possible?
What keeps it up?
It's BIG!

What's the commotion about?
Why all the fuss and clamor?

Zeppelin kommt!

Zeppelin kommt!

Zeppelin kommt!


The reason for everyone's agitation was that they wanted to see the Luftschiff, the flying airship, the Zeppelin. It was 1909 and people everywhere were excited to get a glimpse of this new German machine that could defy the law of gravity and fly. For the first time the very idea of a human being moving across the sky amidst the birds and the clouds was no longer unimaginable.
The German postcard artist Carl Robert Arthur Thiele (1860 – 1936), gives us an artist's impression of the madcap pandemonium created when the first Zeppelin appeared high above a German city. Thiele, who signed his artwork Arth. Thiele – Lpzg (for Leipzig, his hometown), was featured in my story from September 2020, Auf Urlaub — On Leave with another set of his postcards from 1916-17.

This postcard was sent on the 15 October 1909 to Marie Schmeer of München, Bayern (Bavaria). The publisher was Verlag F Eyfriedt of Düsseldorf.


* * *

The object in the sky that fascinated the public was the Luftschiff III built by the German company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH,  founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, known as the Graf von Zeppelin, (1838–1917). It was built in Friedrichshafen, a city on Lake Constance (the Bodensee) in Southern Germany near the borders of Austria and Switzerland. In 1862 Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a young officer in the  army of Württemberg, when he was assigned as a military observer to the United States' Union Army. During the Peninsular Campaign he watched the use of observation balloons and later took a flight in one. This inspired him in the 1890s to create a larger lighter-than-air craft with a rigid frame that would be powered by engines and be steerable to any direction.
Using his own fortune, with support from the King of Württemberg as well as donations from subscribers, Zeppelin succeeded in building his first air ship, the LZ 1. It made its first flight over Lake Constance on 2 July 1900. It carried a crew of five men and flew a distance of 6.0 km (3.7 mi) in 17 minutes, reaching an altitude of 410 m (1,350 ft). After two more flights in October 1900 when the LZ 1 established a new speed record that beat the French electric-powered non-rigid airship, La France, Count Zeppelin ran out of money and was forced to dismantle his prototype airship.

In January 1906 Count Zeppelin completed construction of his second airship, the LZ 2. Unfortunately it was badly damaged by high winds on its maiden flight on 17 January 1906 and subsequently had to be scrapped. 
Despite this setback, the LZ 2 proved that Zeppelin's new engineer, Ludwig Dürr (1878 – 1956) had  fixed many problems in the original design, so a new sister airship, the LZ 3 was built. Its first flight was made on 9 October 1906. As originally built, the LZ 3 was 126.19 m (414 ft) long with a diameter of 11.75 m (38 ft 6 in). Within its aluminum frame were gas bags that displaced a volume of hydrogen gas equal to 11,429 m3 (403,600 cu ft). Power to its propellers was provided by two Daimler piston engines of 84 hp each. It's maximum speed was 40 km/h (25 mph). 

This photo postcard of the Zeppelin Luftschiff III was sent from Nürnberg, Bavaria to Miss Mahtilde(?) Semmer in London on the 29-??-1909. 

 * * *


The image at the top of my post is taken from this second postcard of Arthur Thiele's "Zeppelin Kommt!" series. It shows a colorful group of Germans who have rushed out from their shops onto the street for a glimpse of the great Zeppelin airship. There are about ten different occupations depicted including a chimney sweep, a butcher, a hair dresser, and carpenter's mate. Because it is a painting the colors give a better representation of people than a photograph could do at the time. In the 1900s camera technology was not able to capture movement very well, so artists still had an advantage.

The postcard was sent from Berlin on 19 August 1909 to Paul Bernhagen, also of Berlin. The writer used all four sides of the card with a florid cursive style, and their signature is along the top edge. I believe it is a woman, Johanna Steinca(?). No doubt Paul knew who she was.

* * *

The third postcard in this series shows another street scene, this time at night. Numerous people in their bedclothes and slippers have gone to their windows to see a Zeppelin which is illuminated by a search light from the airship's gondola.

This postcard was mailed on 3 November 1909.

* * *

This next postcard has a bird's eye impression of a Luftschiff  high above a dramatic landscape with a heroic vignette of Graf von Zeppelin in the corner. The artist is unknown.

The first flight of the LZ 3  in 1906 carried eleven people and was in the air over Lake Constance for only 2 hours 17 minutes. A second shorter flight was made the next day, but after that success Count von Zeppelin had the airship deflated and stored for the winter. Nonetheless it was successful enough to convince the German government to take a serious interest in this new aeronautical machine. It offered Count Zeppelin a grant of 500,000 marks if his new airship could make a flight lasting 24 hours. 

However Zeppelin's designers knew that the LZ 3 was not capable of making that goal, so he assigned his engineers to make a better airship, the LZ 4. This airship made its first test flight on 20 June 1908, but it only lasted 18 minutes because of a problem in its steering mechanism. After repairs, further trials were taken on 23 and 29 June, and then on 1 July 1908, the LZ 4 made a spectacular 12 hour cross-country flight over Lake Constance to Zürich, Switzerland and back again. A distance of 386 km (240 mi) during which time the airship reached an altitude of 795 m (2,600 ft). 

On its return the LZ 4 was prepared for the 24-hour endurance trial, which would be a return flight to Mainz. On 13 July 1908 the airship was re-inflated the with fresh hydrogen to ensure maximum lift, but when it tried to take off the next morning engine problems forced a delay. Finally on the morning of  4 August 1908 thousands of people came out to see the LZ 4 lift off for its grand test flight. It carried 12 people onboard and had enough fuel for 31  hours of flight. The route would take it over Konstanz, Schaffhausen, Basel and Strasbourg on the way to Mainz. 

Throughout the flight the LZ 4 was plagued by engine and fuel problems. At times it struggled against the wind while in an extreme nose-down or nose-up position. It rose to a height of 884 m (2,900 ft) which forced the release of its precious reserves of hydrogen gas. These difficulties forced an emergency landing on the Rhine near Oppenheim, 23 kilometres (14 mi) short of Mainz, where five crewmen and all unnecessary material was unloaded. 

The LZ 4 finally reached Mainz about 11:00 PM and immediately set off on its return to its hanger on Lake Constance. But bad luck had a tight grip on the airship. Early the next morning another engine failure forced it to land for repairs at Echterdingen. That afternoon a gust of wind tore it from its moorings. Soldiers and groundcrew struggled to hold onto its tether ropes. A member of the crew who had remained on the airship managed to turn it back towards ground, but in the process the airship struck some trees which punctured gas bags and ignited a disastrous fire. Within minutes the huge Zeppelin was a twisted wreckage. 

Zeppelin LZ 4
Source: Wikipedia

An estimated 40 to 50 thousand spectators witnessed this terrible catastrophe on 5 August 1908. Yet newspaper reports on Count Zeppelin's misfortune led to a spontaneous wave of support for his airships. Within 24 hours his company had received enough unsolicited donations from the German public to build another airship. Ultimately the total donations realized over 6 million marks which provided Zeppelin with a secure financial basis to continue with his aeronautical experiments. 

My postcard with the cloud view of Zeppelin's majestic airship was produced to commemorate this disaster, and may have been sold to raise funds for a new airship. The back of the card has a clear postmark and handwritten date of 21/8/08, which was just two weeks after the LZ 4 accident. 

* * *

On this next postcard of Arthur Thiele's Zeppelin series, a large crowd has gathered in a street to cheer an airship floating in the sky. It may reflect the kind of reception that the LZ 4 received in August 1908 before the accident. This card was sent from Stuttgart on 12 September 1912.

* * *

Here is another artist's rendition of a Zeppelin Luftschiff in the air from a vantage point that would have been impossible for any camera. The artist is unnamed but the caption reads:

Graf Zeppelin lenkbares Luftschiff über dem Rheintal
Count Zeppelin steerable airship over the Rhine valley

After the destruction of the LZ 4, the Zeppelin company went back to the LZ 3 and made modifications to improve it. By late October 1908 it was ready for test flights. On 27 October it flew for 5 hours 55 minutes with the Kaiser's brother, Admiral Prince Heinrich, on board. On 7 November 1908, Crown Prince William was a passenger, and it flew 80 km (50 mi) to Donaueschingen, where the Kaiser was staying. Despite poor weather conditions the flight was a great success and two days later LZ 3 was officially accepted by the German government. The next month Graf von Zeppelin was awarded the Order of the Black Eagle by Kaiser Wilhelm II. 

This postcard has a postmark from Heerlen in the Netherlands dated 25 January 1909.

* * *

The Zeppelin LZ3 made numerous flights in 1909 and was likely the inspiration of Thiele's postcard series. This image shows another nighttime flight with people clambering onto roofs to get a good look. Firemen, oddly with real fire torches, try to restore order. 

Piloting an early airship seems difficult enough that trying to fly after dark must have been particularly risky. The searchlights were used as an aid to landing and avoiding trees and buildings.. Very little was then known about the nature of the Earth's atmosphere at high altitudes. The Zeppelin's giant sausage shape made a perfect sail to be pushed around by winds and the early petrol engines were very underpowered. The airship was equipped with rudders to control horizonal movement left and right, and ailerons to change vertical elevation. 

But the biggest challenge to steering an airship was understanding how the mass of the entire Zeppelin was offset by the lighter-than-air hydrogen gas. Vast quantities of water were stowed as ballast to adjust trim and altitude, which affected performance whenever the airship changed position. Flying a Zeppelin required a new 3-dimensional thinking that had to learned through trial and error. The consequence of a mistake was death.

The postmark on this card is affixed to a postage stamp of the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef. It is too faint to read but the stamp has a helpful printed year of 1908. My guess is 1909-1910.

* * *

This next postcard from my collection is another unknown German artist's painting of a Zeppelin over a city. But there is a second object above the skyline, an airplane with four wings. The perspective makes it appear almost half the size of the Zeppelin, when in fact it was smaller than the boat on the river.

While Count Zeppelin was working on his dream of a lighter-than-air craft, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio were pursuing their idea for a heavier-than-air machine. Their first powered flight on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was on 17 December 1903. By May 1906 they secured a U. S. patent and by 1908 their Wright flyer was on its way to France. On August 8th, just three days after the LZ 4 disaster, Wilbur Wright gave the first demonstration of powered flight at the Le Mans racetrack witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people. 

Just a month later on 17 September 1908, Orville Wright was seriously injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed in a crash while demonstrating the Wright airplane at Fort Meyer, Virginia. Lt. Selfridge became America's first victim of an airplane accident. Yet despite this tragedy, Orville and Wilbur were able to sell contracts to the governments of the United States, France, and Germany. On 13 May 1909, the Flugmaschine Wright Gesellschaft, the Wright Flying Machine Company was formed in Berlin.

At the end of August, Orville and his sister Katherine Wright were in Berlin to give a demonstration of their airplane. On 29 August, on the orders of the Kaiser, Count Zeppelin flew there, with his latest airship. Over 100,000 people came to see it land. The following week Orville flew exhibitions of his airplane to similar sized crowds. 

On September 15, Orville and Katherine traveled to Frankfort to accept Count Zeppelin's offer of a ride in his new airship. They flew 50 miles to Mannheim. Days later, Orville set a new airplane record for a flight that lasted 54 minutes 34 seconds and reached an altitude of 565 feet. 

The postmark on this postcard is from Frankfurt am Main and dated 25 September 1909. A printed caption reads Internationale Luftschiffahrts Aussellung Franfurt a M. ~ International Aviation Exhibition, which I presume meant it was a special souvenir of the exhibition. (The riverboat in the picture looks odd because its engine smoke funnel is hinged to allow it to pass beneath bridges.)

* * *

The final postcard in Arthur Thiele's Zeppelin set shows a wedding party interrupted by the sight of a Zeppelin outside the church. The bride does her best to restrain the enthusiasm of her husband-to-be. There was no cake at the reception. This card was posted on 25 July 1910.

* * *

1960, Echo 1 satellite 
Source: Wikipedia

In the summer of 1960 my mom and I were living at my grandparent's home outside Washington D. C. One day, when I was not yet six, my grandfather took me outside at dusk to see something unusual. He pointed to a shiny dot of light moving across the sky and told me it was called Echo. My vision was probably a bit blurry then, so I didn't see much and wasn't very impressed. But the name stuck, and later I learned that the shiny dot was the communication satellite, Project Echo

It was the first satellite project by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Echo 1 was a spherical balloon 100 feet (30 m) in diameter with a non-rigid skin made of 0.5-mil-thick Mylar. It had a total mass of 180 kilograms. The construction of the balloon was not too dissimilar to Count Zeppelin's airships. The silvery globe functioned as a passive reflector, not a transceiver. Radio signals sent from a ground station were reflected by its metal surface and bounced back to Earth.  For my grandfather, born in 1905, it must have seemed amazing that modern engineering could achieve such a thing. Count Zeppelin would have been impressed too.

By an odd coincidence, (and there are a lot in this story), two days ago, on 18 February 2021, NASA successfully landed the Perseverance rover robot vehicle on the surface of Mars. Because there are no cameras nearby to record the actual event, a NASA artist illustrated the moment of touchdown. The rover was lowered by the "skycrane" part of the lander assembly. It was launched from Earth on 30 July 2020 with the mission spacecraft hurtling through space at 24,600 mph (about 39,600 kph). The trip to Mars took nearly seven months and traveled about 300 million miles (480 million kilometers).

Landing of Mars rover, Perseverance
18 February 2021
Source: NASA

In 1909 Count Zeppelin's airship
was a wonder in every sense of the word.
When people turned their eyes upward to the sky
and saw this enormous cylinder
slowly progressing across the clouds,
they were amazed by a new unfamiliar concept. 
Mankind can fly.

Today in 2021,
we take Orville and Wilbur's airplanes,
if not Ferdinand von Zeppelin's airships, 
for granted, as a familiar common science.
But as the new illustrations and photographs
of the Mars mission are released, 
they should fill us with that same wonder.
It's a feeling of profound astonishment
that sends a person running outside
 to look up at the sky.
Look at that!
It's unbelievable!
It's fantastic!

Mankind can touch
the surface of the Red Planet.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where some say Zee and others say Zed!

Two Wise Guys

13 February 2021

Comedy is hard.
An English pun or a Hungarian double entendre
doesn't translate very well into German or Chinese.
Funny stuff doesn't preserve very well either.
Neolithic man didn't leave behind
a great deal of fossilized humor.

What looks odd or peculiar
in antique ephemera we can guess at,
but we will never know for certain
just how amusing it really was.
The silly or childish things
that we see in
bygone art
seem easier to discern,
but can we recognize actual mirth?

We think we see
the ridiculous absurdities of fools,
but if we are honest,
the farce that once appeared
so hilariously comical,
so humorous that it produced more
than just a chuckle or a guffaw,
but uncontrollable shrieks of laughter,
that joke is invisible to our eyes.
Somehow we never get the punchline.

Which is why comedy
is the most ephemeral of human sentiments.

Two comical characters stand in front of a white panel.
A kind of Chinese sage seems to be instructing a foppish dandy
about a series of twelve dots on the panel.
The postcard's caption reads:

Le Clown dessinateur — Proposition
The Cartoonist Clown - Proposal

The postcard's sender has added a date 26.6.05 on the panel board.
 It seems that these two French music hall clowns
are setting up a puzzle joke or a magic trick.
They were probably featured on a series of postcards
that were produced as souvenirs for a theater or circus act.
If I ever find a full set,
they might offer more clues to the clowns' skit,
but the actual funny business will have to remain
a mystery to us in the distant future of 2021.
The postmark of 28 June 1905
identifies the sender living in the commune Confolens
in southwest France, which is a rural city located
at the confluence of the Vienne and Goire rivers,
hence its name.
The recipient was Madame Andre Pallier
of Saint-Priest-Taurion, a commune
in the Haute-Vienne department, east of Confolens.

 The grim message on the back
makes an ironic case for how
corollary to "Comedy is Hard",
is that "Death is Easy."


Notre malade est toujours
dans le meme état, elle ne
garde absolument rien pas
meme l'eau sucree; nous la
soutenons par des lavements
nutritifs.  Vous avons
une religieuse de l'Espérance
depuis Lundi soir, comme
cela nous sommes plus tranquilles
la nuit.  Le docteur nous
dit que cet état peut se pro-
longer encore longtemps.
Nos amitiés à tous autour de toi. 
mes meilleurs baisers pour
toi et Vovoune

Our patient is still in the same condition,
he/she keeps nothing down,
not even sugar water;
we support him/her through nutrient enemas.
We've had a nun from l"Esperance [name of a hospital?]
since Monday evening;
that way we are calmer at night [less worried].
  The doctor tells us
that this condition may
continue for a long time.
Our best regards to everyone
at your house, 
my best kisses [love]
to you and Vovonne.  [a name?]

[With special thanks to my Francophone English wife for making this translation] 

The second postcard of the same two clowns 
puts them in a completely different sketch.
Both are perched on top of the backs of kitchen chairs.
The Chinese clown has a guitar and is demonstrating a kick step.
His sad-faced companion has a mandolin.
The rush seats of their chairs
look about to be busted out.
The caption reads:

Séance interrompue
Interrupted session

 Their costumes tell us that they are a crazy duo.
Their instruments suggest a musical element.
The joke, however, has vanished. 

The card was sent to Mademoiselle Bertha Dumont
of Montluçon, a commune in central France on the Cher river,
on 7 September 1904.

 The antique photographs and postcards that I collect
show us images of entertainers from past times,
but I only pretend to know anything
about their musical artistry
or, in this case, their comic flair.
Music and humor are both
elusive historical artifacts.
Living a century later
we can't hear the melody
or experience the gag.

Our timing is off.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
where we might find more answers
to the question,

Ole Bull, Adventures in America, part 3

06 February 2021

A violinist cradles his instrument in his arms
while he gazes away from the camera lens
towards a distant audience.
The anonymous photographer
has left no marks,
no location or date,
just a simple caption.

Ole Bull

The name confused many people then,
and still does today too,
like some silly joke about an old man.
But for those who knew him,
he was Oo-lay Boo-ll,
the great Norwegian virtuoso of the violin.

This is the third, and final, episode
in my series on three photos of Ole Bull.
Here is part 1.
and part 2.

"It is hopeless for the occasional visitor
to try to keep up with Chicago –
she outgrows her prophecies faster
than she can make them.
She is always a novelty;
for she is never the Chicago
you saw when you passed
through the last time."
Mark Twain

Chicago, Illinois
The Great Conflagration, as seen from the prairie
Harper's Weekly
28 October 1871

The Great Chicago Fire of 8-10 October 1871 is remembered as one of the worst catastrophes  in American history. Over three days a huge fire swept through the city, destroying approximately 3.3 square miles (9 km2) of Chicago's center district; killing over 300 people, and leaving more than 100,000 residents homeless. It did not take long for photographers to record the devastation.

Chicago, Tremont House,
after the fire, 8 October 1871

The Tremont House, the grand hotel where Ole Bull had stayed during his winter concert tour of 1868, was gone. The fire advanced with such unimaginable intensity that it consumed entire city blocks leaving nothing but masonry and rubble. The area which suffered the most was in the center of Chicago, where the court house, city offices, businesses, hotels, and theaters were located.

Excerpt from 1871 Map of Chicago

Chicago, Sherman House,
after the fire, October 8, 1871

A number of photographers produced stereoscopic photos which used a double lens camera that made two images. When viewed through a special holder that separated the double-sided photograph for each eye, an illusion of depth was created. Here I've shown only the left side of a stereo photograph of what remained of the Sherman House, another grand hotel two blocks west of the Tremont, after the Great Fire of 1871. Even grainy photos of the disaster soon became a popular souvenir of Chicago.

Chicago, Drake's Block,
after the fire, 8 October 1871

One block diagonally southeast from the Tremont was the majestic six-story Field, Leiter & Co. dry goods store located on Drake's block at the corner of State and Washington. The fire reduced it to a smoldering ruin. Likewise one block down on State St, the Bookseller's Row building, where the Western News Company had its business, was now transformed into a grim skeleton of the once impressive edifice.

Chicago, Bookseller's Row, State St.
after the fire, 8 October 1871

The first newspaper reports of the Chicago Fire shocked the nation. Later, when the public saw the apocalyptic images, the destruction seemed unbelievable. How could a fire destroy a modern city like Chicago? It was too frightening to imagine.

Yet what is less known in our century is that on the same day, 8 October 1871, there was a greater fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, 250 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. This monstrous wildfire burned through  roughly 1,200,000 acres of Wisconsin and Michigan forest. This second conflagration killed an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people. But there was more unthinkable tragedy that day.

Map of the Great Fires of October 8, 1871

America's collective memory of 1871 has sadly forgotten that simultaneous to the horrific October 8th fires in Chicago and Peshtigo, 35 other enormous wildfires roared through Michigan on the east side of Lake Michigan. These towns and cities were hundreds of miles apart, and several were on Lake Huron. The Great Michigan Fire burned through 3,900 square miles of forest, destroying dozens of communities. It is believed that this incredible catastrophe was a combination of freak windstorm and an unusually dry summer in Michigan and Wisconsin. At the time it was impossible to make an accurate account of the death toll, but a conservative estimate now is that over 500 people perished in the Michigan fires of 1871.
Chicago, Crosby's Opera House
during the fire, 8 October 1871
Source: Harper's Weekly, 28 October 1871
The illustration above depicts the imagined scene of when Crosby's Opera House was in flames. It was only a block south of the Tremont hotel, and was the last Chicago venue Ole Bull played during his 1868 concert tour.
In 1871 the technology of photography was not yet advanced to allow cameras to capture motion. But commercial artists had no difficult sketching this dreadful event. Two popular national magazines of the time, Harper's Weekly, and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, produced dozens of illustrations of Chicago's terrible fire. The newspaper coverage quickly brought offers of aid and assistance from all around the country. But shockingly there were few reports on the Peshtigo fire and even less on the other Michigan wildfires. Consequently there are very few contemporary photos or illustrations of those disasters. 

Ole Bull was in America at the time,
recovering from ill health.
He must have read reports on the fire with horror,
thinking of his many friends and relations
in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
But what could he do?

My third photograph of Ole Bull, like the previous two featured in part 1 and part 2, is a small carte de viste, the most common size photo in the 1860s and early 1870s. The larger cabinet card photos didn't become the popular standard until after 1873. Ole is older here, I think, with a bit more grey. His suit coat though, with its full cut sleeves allowing the vigorous arm movement of a violinist, looks the same. With the printed caption, it's definitely a souvenir from one of Ole's concert tours. Though it's possible it is of Europe origin, I believe it's more likely American-made.

It might have been taken in February/March 1870, when Ole and his son Alexander Bull, rode in a Pullman hotel car on the recently opened Pacific Railroad, the new transcontinental rail line, from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Oakland's Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. For about 5 weeks he played several concerts in California, and then,
via the train again, returned to the east. By April he was in New York City, then in June to Norway where he married the young Wisconsin woman, Sara Chapman Thorp (1850–1911). She was then age 19. Ole was 60.
In August 1870, Ole and Sarah came back to Madison, Wisconsin, where in September they held a second wedding with their American family and friends. It's not clear how long they stayed in Wisconsin, or if they even traveled back to Norway that year. Happily in March 1871 Ole and Sarah celebrated the birth of their only child, a daughter, Sara Olea.

In the summer of 1871, the Bull family were staying at a house in West Lebanon, Maine. Ole was not well. The brief reports said he'd fallen and had "congestion of the brain." It was considered serious enough that his usual fall/winter concert tour was delayed and then canceled. He was said to recuperating but no definitive plans were announced.

Then on 8 October 1871, the Great Fire exploded across the Midwest. Madison, Wisconsin, Sarah's hometown was just 140 miles northwest of Chicago, and 180 miles southeast of Peshtigo. Ole had many Norwegian friends in the Chicago area. He had performed many times in Milwaukee and Detroit, so he was very familiar with region and its people. Surely the descriptions of these terrible fires brought back memories of his experience with the January 1868 fire at Chicago's Farwell Hall, and the fiery collision of two steamboats on the Ohio River in December 1868. His response then was that the show must go on. I suspect that in the last months of 1871, as he read about the terrible fire, Ole Bull's determination to perform restored his health, in part, because he wanted to take his violin back to Chicago. 

Chicago Evening Post
4 November 1871


Within days of the October 8th fire, offers of aid came from actors, musicians, theaters, and opera houses from around the country. The newspaper published detailed lists of theatrical names and organizations from America's other cultural centers, like New York, Boston, and San Fransisco which had contributed money to help the people of Chicago.
Mr. Vaas' Great Western Light Guard Band, which had accompanied Ole's 1868 concerts, and lost instruments in the Farwell Hall fire, were once again without instruments. Many members of the band were burned out their homes too. They reformed with borrowed instruments and proposed to go on a benefit concert tour. 
Chicago's newspapers did not advertise any concerts until January, and then only smaller groups. The grand theaters and concert halls in the city center were gone, destroyed in the fire, so the little entertainment that came to Chicago was forced to perform at the churches, theaters, and social halls in west and south Chicago.

Chicago Tribune
1 March 1872

On March 1st, 1872, nearly five months after the Great Fire, Ole Bull's new manager, Mr. T. R. Turnbull, announced concerts of the world-renowned violinist at the Central Hall in Chicago. His performances would be the first of any major artist since the fire. The Central Hall was an annex of the Trinity Episcopal Church, and located at the corner of Wabash Ave. and Twenty-second Street, 2 miles south of the city center, in an area not affected by the fire. The building is now gone, but I suspect it was much smaller than the 3,000 seats of Crosby's Opera House.
Ole would be assisted by a young soprano from Minnesota, Miss Gertrude Orme; a tenor, (formerly a bass!) from Philadelphia, Mr. William Candidus, (who was also piano manufacturer, William Steinway's brother-in-law); and a German pianist/accompanist from Leipzig, Mr. Alfred Richter. There was also an organist too, Mr. N. Ledochowski, probably the organist with the church. Admission was still $1.00 with no extra charge for reserved seats. Tickets went fast and it was reported that a thousand people were turned away at the door, as there was no standing room.
Following his concerts in Chicago and then Milwaukee, Ole and his small troupe traveled westward to Iowa, for performances in towns along the rail line to St. Paul, Minnesota where Ole was booked for a concert on Monday evening, March 25th. Mr. Candidus, was indisposed with a severe cold, and was replaced by Mr. J. H. Chatterson. Ole's wife, Sarah was also traveling with him. 

The reviews from the Davenport, Iowa concert were harsh. One reviewer said Mr. Richter's piano solos showed he was a pianist of "undeniable merit", but "not so much...can be said of his compositions which lack the inspiration of genius, and are more brusque than pleasing." The substitute tenor sang "with a very commonplace voice in an extremely mediocre manner". Miss Orme had "a tolerable voice but sang out of tune on the high notes." Another reviewer wrote that the young tenor had "an average voice with fair medium tones and upper notes like the screech of a lost Indian... We pitied him in his tight pants, though, and forgave him."
Of the ten pieces on the program, Ole Bull played on only four. His performance of "Siciliano Tarantella" was "masterly  above criticism, but the composition, like all others offered on the occasion, was  extremely trifling."  His other pieces were "Visions", his own composition, and variations on "Lily Dale", and the "Arkansas Traveler". The first reviewer was "left severely disappointed in the concert...Ole Bull was all we expected, and more too. Mr. Richter performed his part well, but the singers were below criticism." 
The second reviewer was more impressed. "Like the fabled person gifted with the power of endowing inanimate things with speech, so Ole Bull seems possessed of the faculty of making his instrument talk, if an utterance of the deepest and tenderest emotions of the soul can be called talking." 

On Monday the 18th, the ensemble was in Iowa City, Iowa,
about 220 miles west of Chicago.
The next morning, Tuesday March 19th, 1872,
Ole Bull's party had a small problem checking out of their hotel.

Sioux City IA Journal
20 March 1872

Iowa City, March 19. — This morning the Clinton house, the leading hotel of the city, caught fire and burned to the ground. All the rooms were occupied, and some of the occupants narrowly escaped. But little furniture was saved. Ole Bull's concert troupe were in the house, and Mr. Bull ran into the street in his night clothes, with his fiddle under his arm. Loss about $25,000; insurance $15,000.
After the Iowa City hotel fire, "Ole Bull gave a negro $50 for recovering his watch from the burning building, which was one-tenth the cost of the watch."  On Wednesday, he and his company performed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 30 miles north. Miss Orme and Mr. Chatterson had to apologize for their "scanty wardrobe, their store clothes having been singed by the Iowa City fire." Later that evening Ole played to a large crowd at Styer's Opera House in Decorah, Iowa, where there was a large Norwegian community. The next day, Thursday, he stayed over for a matinee and another evening concert, playing to full houses. The box office receipts were reported as $1,500. A reviewer said "I attended one of the concerts, and was delighted with the playing of the great master of the violin. Of the other members of the troupe I cannot speak very flatteringly."
Following his concerts in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Ole and his company returned to Chicago for concerts at the Union Park Congregational Church on April 18 & 19. The hotel fire in Iowa City generated a flurry of brief paragraphs in newspapers around the country, but by May it was stale news.
Ole and Sarah returned to Madison, and then later in the year they were back in Bergen. Ole would return to Chicago in March 1873. On his voyage back to Europe in April, his ship narrowly missed running into rocks off the coast of Ireland. He would not play Chicago again until 1877, and again in May 1880.
Central Music Hall (1879–1900)
Source: Wikipedia

His last farewell concert was on May 16th, the day before Norway's Constitution Day, May 17th, Ole's favorite holiday. Around 2,500 people came to hear him at the new Central Music Hall, at the southeast corner of State and Randolph Streets. It was the first auditorium built after the Great Fire and was purposefully designed to have the best acoustics for music. Nearly every seat had an unobstructed view of the stage. There was enough space on the stage for a pipe organ, a choir of 175 singers, or an orchestra of 100 musicians. The building also had 3 times the number of fire exits required by the new fire codes.
For Ole Bull, who had first played Chicago in 1853, the transformation of the city's center from the old pre-war years, and then its resurrection from the ashes of the 1871 fire must have seemed a wonder of the new modern age.
Central Music Hall (1879–1900)

Sadly his health began failing rapidly, and he immediately left for New York. After a few concerts there with real "farewell" tributes, Ole returned to Bergen, Norway. By July, reports said he was seriously ill with cancer. On August 17, 1880, as his wife Sara played Mozart’s Requiem on the organ at their home in Lysøen, Ole Bull, the great Norwegian master of the violin, the Paganini of the North, passed away. He was 70 years old.
* * *
When I began researching my three small photographs of Ole Bull, I never expected that I would be writing an adventure story. Like polishing Aladdin's lamp, I was startled to discover that concealed inside these photos was a fantastic genie. My original purpose was to place Ole's photos within a simple historical context. But Ole, like Aladdin's djinn, had other ideas. 

In 1883, Sara Chapman Thorp Bull (1850–1911), published a biography about her husband entitled, Ole Bull, a Memoir. There are many anecdotes of his life, but she has nothing about the Farwell Hall fire in Chicago, or the Iowa City hotel fire, and only a brief mention about the collision of the two steamboats on the Ohio River. There's nothing at all about the Great Fire in Chicago, or of Ole's many concerts in the Windy City.

For me, living in the 21st century, Ole seems like a marathon runner who never stops. It is incredible that this amazing musician kept performing after being so close to death. His fateful encounters with fire were no casual mishaps. At various times his life was in perilous danger, not to mention the lives of his fellow musicians and sometimes even his wife and son. How does someone recover so quickly from a deadly calamity and go back on stage to perform? I think it was Ole's innate trust in the power of music to heal a soul that helped him do it.
And what about his instruments? Over his 50 year career, Ole Bull owned dozens of violins made by the celebrated Italian makers like Amati, Gasparo da Salò, Guarneri, Stradivari and others. On most of his tours he probably traveled with at least two violins and several bows. After all, next to the flute, the violin is the most portable musical instrument. It's frightening to think how easily these prized violins might have been damaged or lost during their time with Ole. However during his early life in Paris, Ole studied violin making in the workshop of the famous French luthier, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798–1875). I think he viewed his violins as simple wooden machines which he knew he could adjust or repair as needed. I suspect he always carried with him a roll of luthier tools and supplies. If an instrument was damaged, he didn't worry because he believed he could fix it or find another one.
It was also surprising to learn how much of American history that this Norwegian violinist observed firsthand. His travels in the United States covered two decades before and then after the Civil War. Both were periods of political turmoil, national expansion, modern innovation, and societal change. In the 1840s and 50s he saw how slavery, an evil injustice, was dividing America. Then in the 1860s and 70s, he witnessed a re-united nation struggling to define new freedoms and civil rights. This must have influenced his dedication to Norwegian freedom and its constitution.

Since few of the musicians in my photograph collection ever achieved any national notoriety, and most remain nameless, my research on Ole Bull has taken me on a different exploration of a musician's life than what I usually do. I have left out dozens of Ole's stories, like why he had diamonds mounted in his extra-long bow; or the time he played for the deaf Duke of Devonshire; or what happened when ruffians tried to steal his violins.

But there is one more story that I can't resist adding.
Now it is time for the coda.
Here is a video of music composed by Ole Bull.
His Et Saeterbesøg (A Mountain Vision).
is played by violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved
with pianist Roderick Chadwick.

The violin that you will hear
is one made by Nicolò Amati (1596 – 1684)
and once played by Ole Bull.
I believe it may be the same violin
pictured in his three photos.


* * *

* * *
 There is nothing to see in the video
but I invite you to listen to it
while you read this next part
of Ole Bull's adventures.

It was 1876.
Ole Bull's next adventure
was somewhere more exotic.

The Sphinx and two Pyramids, circa 1870-99

In September of 1875 Ole Bull paid a visit to the King and Queen of Norway & Sweden, Oscar II and Sophia of Nassau, at the Royal Drottningholm Palace in Stockholm. (From1814 to 1905, Norway and Sweden were in a union that shared a monarch.) Ole had just written a new piece for his violin and offered to play it for Queen Sophia. However she was recovering from a serious illness and her physician advised against it, as he prescribed rest and quiet. When King Oscar learned that Ole would soon embark on a European tour that included concerts in Egypt, the king suggested that he play his new music from atop the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu).

Climbing the Great Pyramid, circa 1870-90

The Suez canal opened in November 1869 and with the completion of this engineering marvel, Egypt, then a part of the Ottoman empire, became an important transit point between Europe and the Far East. Now more Europeans could visit Cairo to see the ancient Egyptian sites, and more tourists brought a demand for European entertainers. So it was not that unusual for the greatest Norwegian violinist to be booked for an engagement there. Sweden even had a consul stationed in Cairo.
So on the 4th of February 1876, Ole Bull arrived at the port of Alexandria, Egypt. After a six hour journey to Cairo he made arrangements to visit the famous pyramids. The next morning, Ole and his companions were taken to the site of the pyramids. He was the oldest of the group, but he refused assistance and climbed up the blocks of the Great Pyramid of Cheops by himself. However he did allow his two Egyptian guides to carry his violin and his bow. When they reached the top he took his violin from its case. The best description of what happened next is found in Music, a monthly magazine · vol. 21, December 1901.
from the Danish of Johannes Haarklow
translated by Dr. W. H. Newman    (p 48-49)

"Bull took up his violin and sounded a couple of notes to see if it had come up without injury. Then he drew himself to his full height and looked around him for a few moments, enjoying the wonderful, indescribable view.
"To the right, the Nile, with its unending green fields as far as the eye could reach, the majestic stream, the waves gleaming like fluid silver. To the left, the likewise endless and unsearchable golden desert,t bounded by the silently uplifted Lybian mountains, and at their foot the city of the Khalifa with its minarets, cupolas, and palm gardens, all bathed in the velvet sunshine. When he suddenly began to play it was as a shout of thanks to the fate that had brought him to this height and to this wonderful picture.
"He turned to the North, the heaven of his earth, and began. That music cannot be described. In the clear, still air of that lofty spot, the highest of all the works of human hand, the tones of the violin sounded so soft and soothing, and then so powerful and penetrating, that one felt himself moved by a magic power and touched in his innermost soul. Now the soft voice of maiden song longing for her home hearth— now the triumphant hero, singing in pride of fatherland. As Uhland makes Strassberg's Munster tower tremble when the Goethe scratches his name thereon, so here also, to use a like figure, the six-thousand-year-old royal grave in the bowels of the pyramid must have echoed these master tones. And that nothing should be wanting to the poetry of this hour, two powerful pelicans rose from the Nile, and their wings gleaming like silver sheen, soared majestically away toward the North, as if to carry the tidings of the happy fulfillment of the expedition. The Bedouins, these children of nature, who, during the playing, had lain half hidden in a corner, apparently as unmovable as the stones themselves, sprang up when the artist had finished, and again and again cried: 'Allah! Allah!'— the highest expression of their admiration.
"On their arrival at Cairo, Bull sent the following telegram to the king: 'Obedient to my promise given at Drottningholm, I played to-day, my 66th birthday. 'Saeterjenten's Sondag' on the top of Cheops pyramid, to the honor of Norway and her beloved king.'
"The next forenoon came the royal answer: ' I thank you heartily for your telegram, and with the queen, rejoice in all your successes.' 
The music that Ole played, Saeterjenten's Sondag, is the slow movement within Et Saeterbesøg on the video.

The view from atop the Great Pyramid, circa 1920s

All musicians strive to reach the mythical pinnacle of their craft.
Few actually achieve it as Ole Bull did on the top of the Great Pyramid.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say Ole Bull was the most well-known entertainer of the mid-19th century.  I can't think of any musician of his time who traveled to as many places in Europe and North America, or sustained a concert career as long as Ole Bull did over four decades. In the 1867–1872 period that my three photographs represent, Ole's name appeared nearly everyday in American newspapers. It was a level of celebrity that few musicians in his time attained. And in the decades to come, many more would attempt and fail to reach it. 

Ole Bull was clearly a gifted violinist, yet he was a uniquely self-taught performer of the early 19th century who achieved fame without the benefit of academic training. Like Paganini, his compositions were personal showpieces designed for his own performances, and they reflect the flamboyant virtuoso style of his time. Though Ole Bull played some works by Paganini and Mozart, I don't believe he ever played music by other composers like Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and likewise, I don't think any of the great composers of his era wrote music specifically for him. After his death in 1880, Ole's music with its theme & variation forms and sentimental melodies became old-fashioned as other composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky pushed the Romantic violin repertoire to higher levels. The violin works of his virtuoso contemporaries like the Belgian, Henri Vieuxtemps, (1820–1881); the Hungarian, Joseph Joachim, (1831–1907) ; and the Spanish. Pablo de Sarasate, ( 1844–1908) have been similarly neglected. And as I have tried to show with some examples of his reviews, as Ole grew older, his concerts became less innovative and more formulaic. He was using his dependable showpieces rather than new programing to entertain his adoring public.

He was more than just a virtuoso violinist. Ole Bull was a consummate showman. His talent alone was not enough for him to succeed in the business of music. It required hard work and incredible determination. It also demanded a huge personal sacrifice. Had he stayed in Norway or Sweden, taken a position in the royal court orchestra and become a teacher in the music academy, he might have left some impact on the development of the violin repertoire and trained a long list of future solo violinists. But he chose a different path. One that took his violin to more places and greater heights than any of his contemporaries. Did Paganini ever play on top of a pyramid?
I think his greatest musical legacy was that he became an inspirational figure. It was the main reason people saved his photographs. They wanted a tangible object to remember the magical sound of Ole Bull's beautiful violin.
My research on Ole Bull benefited from two very useful websites. The first is a website, produced in Norway to celebrate his 200th anniversary. It has a terrific biography of Ole Bull, written by Maria Tripodianos. It is in English and has many images and details on his life and music.
The other resource was a wonderful biography written in 1883 by Ole Bull's second wife, Sara Chapman Thorp Bull (1850–1911). It's entitled, Ole Bull, a Memoir, and is available as a PDF file or eBook.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where people in the olden days
had their own problems
with masking and social distancing.



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