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Claude et Lily

Claude & Lilly

by Marie Jeanne Baeli

Claude Debussy

at Paul Dukas house in Eragny on May 11th, 1902

National Library of France

Rosalie Debussy, dite Lilly ou Lilo

at Paul Dukas house in Eragny on May 11th

Claude Debussy’s birthplace, St Germain en Laye

Rosalie Texier, known as Lilly or Lilo, was the first wife of Claude Debussy. Born May 22nd, 1873 in Châlons-sur-Saône, she lived with her parents in the small Burgundy town of Tonnerre. Her father, Germain, born on July 6th, 1845 in Taizé-Aizé (Charente) was controller of the telegraph at Tonnerre and then at Montereau Fault Yonne. He had retired to Bichain, in the commune of Villeneuve-la-Guyard, at 8 rue des Princes. Widowed, he remarried with Françoise Benza, born in 1853, and died on 19th May 1921 in Villeneuve la Guyard. Her mother, Marie-Rosalie née Magne, died in 1899 in Tonnerre.


In the 90s, Lilly "went up to Paris" and worked as a model at the Callot sisters, rue Taitbout, one of the most elegant Parisian couture houses of the time in the boulevards district.


At the time of her meeting with Claude Debussy, she was 25 years old and lived Rue de Berne in Paris. She was the companion of a friendly stock market player.


According to musicologist Marcel Dieschy, she was a midinette with a Gavroche spirit, very pretty, elegant, fine, without talent or culture, but devoted and simple, with reserve, tact, intuition. Life with Debussy improved her


Claude Debussy, 37 years old, struggled to live as a composer without making concessions, aware of the value of the search for a new musical language that begun with the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. On May 5th, 1901, the Opéra Comique put Pelléas and Mélisande on its programme for the next season. He had been working since 1894 at the Nocturnes, the three of them gave him more difficulties than the five acts of Pelléas

He had just had an eight-year affair with Gabrielle Dupont, a modist, known as “Gaby with steel eyes” who ended up leaving him.


René Peter, friend of the musician, tells of Lilly and Claude’s first meeting in May 1898:

She had arrived from the Yonne a few years earlier, fine, pale complexion, very small mouth and dark chestnut hair, to earn an honest living in a Parisian couture house. Her first encounter with Debussy, brought about by friends, including myself, provoked on both sides little external signs of sympathy. Claude thought she was pretty, but namby-pamby; even he sometimes had fun imitating her little manners, which she took very well as the charming girl she was. On the other hand, she and Gaby loved each other very much. Then all three lost sight of each other..

Six months of correspondence, a love story

In this month of April 1899, Claude Debussy had just met again the pretty Lilly Texier and decided, this time, to be seduced.

 Friday April 21,  1899


 My dear little Lili


If you were very nice, you would put on   

your pink petticoat and your black hat,

and  come and say hello to me

next Sunday around 2:30 a.m.,

we would talk and plan

a few parties with Georges.

                          your devoted

                          Claude Debussy

                         58 rue Cardinet 

                         on the 5th floor

                   (there is no elevator)

If you can’t, I’ll cry,

and send me a note.

This missive is the first in a long series of notes that he was depositing at his work on Taitbout Street, or express letters that he sent to his home on Bern Street on weekdays because, from that date, they see each other on Saturdays and Sundays in his small Parisian apartment Rue Cardinet (17th)


April 24:

My dear little Lilly,

Claude has not yet recovered from the bites of your dear little mouth!

…You see, Lilly my lovely; there was in us, almost in spite of us, something passionately burning secretly and waiting only for an opportunity to manifest


May 1:

What is she doing right now the pretty Lilly?… She probably lends the tapered grace of her body to very sumptuous dresses which will later adorn the worn-out bodies of some old dolls…I am starting the series of these sad and gloomy days when there will be hardly any light possible, if not in the feverish and passionate expectation of what I love most in the world.


May 8 :

I don’t need to tell you that all my flesh remembers you, screams at you: what are you not there to silence it?… despite that it does not fit in your habits to devote the days of the week to exercises too clearly voluptuous.


May 15 :

This love has become something that embraces and surrounds my life, I need it as absolutely as the need to breathe. Nothing can hold back this attraction which resembles that of a mysterious abyss; I don’t care if I even have to die from having contemplated your eyes too much and drunk too much the blood of your lips.


May 24 :

From the day I found you, life has passed so quickly that I feel like I barely saw you and that’s what makes your absence unbearable. You will tell me that I saw you very little but I had at least the resource, if the desire to see you took me too much, to go and pray «our good friend» the concierge to look for you. It was very short moments, with apparitions of strange and hairy young people, but it made me feel warm for several hours, I felt less alone…


During this month of May, his best friend, the writer Pierre Louÿs, famous for his erotic-symbolist tales - who was very present in all areas of his life, including financially - announced, to his great surprise, his marriage to Louise de Hérédia, daughter of the poet José-Maria de Hérédia. The trouble caused by this event and the awareness of his situation as a single man soon in his forties will weigh in his decision to marry Lilly


During a one-week stay with his parents in Tonnerre (from May 22 to June 2, 1899) Lilly received a dozen letters, always passionate, describing in detail the state of exaltation in which he finds himself and the torments experienced by their separation..


As he had explained to Pierre Louÿs in 1897:

I am sometimes sentimental like a milliner who would have been Chopin's mistress; I need to realize that my heart is still likely to tremble - instead of quietly doing personal chemistry and that only takes responsibility for paper .


Although one cannot doubt his sincere passion, he sometimes gives the impression - in these letters - of wanting to test, to exaggerate the expression of his emotions and then find this same intensity in the process of composing his music.


On May 22, 1899, he wrote to Lilly:

...I wonder if I shall ever have the leisure to love you as much as I want, I am suddenly afraid that life will be too short to be able to achieve what I dream of, happiness for you and through you, I think of days when we would be so deep in our passion that we would no longer have the worry about the time since it would be deliciously always the same! It would be our kisses that would lead the march of time, that awful old man who goes too fast, or too slow.


May 24th :

If you only knew how full of you everything is here! There isn't a corner, not a piece of furniture that isn't marked with your delightful presence; it's like a thousand little voices buzzing in my ears in such strange and touching whispers; where your sweet name of Lilly keeps coming back like a fine and delicate music. And the old fat toad on the mantelpiece is stubbornly looking at the door through which he is accustomed to see you enter, and though his heart is made of wood, I assure you he is in pain.

Truly, I love you without hesitation, nothing prevents me from giving myself up completely to this force that is carrying me away. Have you felt this wonderful light that surrounds us when we have to separate and our eyes seem to get stuck?


June 2nd :

Today, as I am writing to you, I can barely hold my pen, it is all me who would like to run to you to have your lips faster, your eyes quicker, for nothing I would open my veins, so that my blood would flow and sing the joy of your return. Don't find it too absurd, think that you don't know what to say to calm down the unbridled passion in me.


On his return to Paris at the beginning of June, a drama broke out. Claude will confess a little later :

" can rightly say that you were cheated once…"


It is, in his words, only lightness. Lilly wants to break in a "relentless" way for, still according to Claude, futile stories of crumpled self-esteem, of non-existent things. He then engages in a real suicide blackmail :

Thinking about it, it's not too much to pay with my life for all this lost happiness and it's still a way of giving it to you.

I'll pack all your belongings which will be given to you the day after tomorrow morning, I naturally keep my ring, wanting to be buried with it. Please welcome my last and longest kiss.

of the one who was your Claude.

I will wait for a word from you until tonight, and if I can no longer hope for anything, just tell me that you forgive me, your pride may well sacrifice someone who is going to die.

Then everything goes back to normal:

Friday, June 16, 1899, 6:30 a.m.

Beloved Lilly

Before I see you again and especially not to talk about it anymore, I want to tell you that I have never suffered like this last night!... You see, the thought of losing you was associated in me with the thought of the death of everything!... I beg you, never fear anything of my love, it is too much made of the blood of my veins and the infinite hope of my heart. Think that I put more than my life in you, that nothing can replace Lilly !…


Still in June, she fell ill, he wrote to his friend Pierre Louÿs :

I have been spending two nights near her.

On June 17th, following a blackmail letter from Lilly who obviously wants to marry:

What I could offer you would seem too miserable in front of what is offer to you... If the situation you're being offered is so enviable...


He makes up his mind:

I am no longer young and I need to settle down in my life ... I found you again and the love I had secretly had for you, once, was able to develop with a passion that quickly became exclusive and almost wild ... I want to make you my life ... For the moment, I earn my living, no more, and if I can still offer you to share it, without fear, it is obviously not a fortune! ... And you would have to love me enough to endure a few months of mediocrity..


I must add to what I was saying about "a few mediocre months", that it is certain that Pelléas et Mélisande will be played this winter and that from September onwards, my situation will improve very significantly

I tell you that you will be what you want in my life, I subscribe in advance to everything you can hope and want. Finally, I want to make you my life, in the most complete sense we can give to these words. Now do whatever you like with me, you hold my happiness or my misfortune in your hands


June 18:

"Are you now confident and sure of the solidity of your Claude's love?…


June 20th:

My house feels like a prison to me, and I'm shouting at the walls: when will you serve to contain Lilly's happiness?


July 3rd:

It's a charming nonsense, that you're far away from me, sleeping in your beautiful sleep as a spoiled child, and I can't see anything of this wonderfully pretty thing! ..


July 5th:

I want you to be my little one forever and that for every day.

Lilly and Claude Debussy with Paul Dukas and Pierre Lalo

in the forest in May 1902

Debussy Museum  Saint Germain-en-Laye

October 1899, the wedding

The correspondence with Lilly during this period of "engagement" stops there, and on July 3rd Claude, who has made his decision, informs his publisher Georges Hartmann of his plans:

You ask me what I do!...When I don't have a fever, I love with all my heart a young person who is blonde - naturally - and who has the most beautiful hair in the world and eyes that make the most excessive comparisons possible...Finally, she is to marry!…


Lilly is sick again on September 4 and Claude calls in Dr. Abel Desjardins (this doctor had been introduced to him by his friend the composer Ernest Chausson):

...I'm here to ask you to come to my house... see my little Lilly. Besides being adorable, she is a very courageous person and if her case was serious, please do not hesitate to tell her; only I beg you not to damage her.


Then on September 24th, again to his publisher

I've been quite unhappy enough with cuddly compensations and I must even warn you that I'll soon be married with the above mentioned compensations... it will be done without vain decoration and bad music. There's really no need to disturb the universe for such a personal gesture.


The wedding took place on October 19, 1899, a civil marriage at the town hall of the 17th arrondissement. The witnesses were Pierre Louÿs, Eric Satie and Lucien Fontaine (respectively writer, pianist at the Cabaret du Chat Noir and industrialist). To pay for the dinner that was to follow, Claude will give a piano lesson to his pupil Miss Worms de Romilly who describes the scene

Lilo Debussy was waiting at the bottom of the stairs of our apartment, sitting on the bench for the lesson to be over, in order  to go on a honeymoon trip with her husband on the top of an imperial omnibus! They ended up in the Garden of Plants, where the poor groom, who hated walking, dragged himself... The feast was paid for with the price of my lesson, and everyone walked back, for alas, there was not enough money left to take the omnibus...


After the wedding they went to the small apartment they occupied on the 5th floor, 58 rue Cardinet (17th), in this beautiful Haussmannian district of the Plaine Monceau


The Debussy family lived there, on the fifth floor of a narrow house, in a neat and tidy little apartment. From the windows you could see some greenery, and this peaceful retreat was disturbed, at certain hours, only by the cheerful cries of a troop of children in a schoolyard. We breathed there an air of intimacy, of peace, in two small rooms joined by a bay. One was the master's studio where, on his desk, manuscripts, inkwells and pencils were arranged in perfect order. There was also a sofa, some oriental rugs and on the wall were paintings by Lerolle, Jacques Emile Blanche, Thaulow and drawings representing Lilo Debussy.. In the other room, there was an upright piano, books, sheet music... Lilo respected his sleep until late in the day because he worked at night and stayed up until morning.

Debussy taught by one of his pupils, Cahiers Debussy, n°2, 1978..



To Georges Hartmann on October 22nd :

I got married last Thursday; the ceremony was as brief as possible; there is now a Madame Claude Debussy with whom I think I shall arrange a most enviable existence. I'll be able to work without any mundane and even sentimental complications to confuse my semiquavers! When we have a table that can sit more than two people, I hope you will be kind enough to come to us..


To his friend Robert Godet, January 5, 1900:

Right away, I'll give you the anecdotal side of my life. Two events pass through it: the first, my moving, the second, my marriage... Yes, my dear friend, do me the pleasure of remaining seated...

Mademoiselle Lilly Texier has changed her inharmonious name to Lilly Debussy, much more euphonious, everyone will agree! She is unbelievably blonde, pretty as in the legends; she adds to these gifts that of being in no way modern'style. She doesn't like music... but only according to her fantasy


His friend Arthur Fontaine, a high-ranking civil servant and art lover, wrote:

Debussy is said to be married with a very pretty face from one of the most elegant fashion houses in Paris..

October 1899 to June 1901, difficulties

To support the couple, Claude receives regular advances from his publisher Georges Hartmann amounting to 500 francs per month; he has the three Nocturnes in progress, which he is finishing, one of whose orchestral scores is dedicated to Lilly:

This manuscript belongs to my little Lilly-Lilo. All rights reserved. As a testimony to my deep joy at being her husband.

Claude Debussy , this day of the year 1901.


And while awaiting a promise of a performance at the Opéra Comique, he begins the orchestration work of Pelléas.

In a letter to Pierre Louÿs, he laments the success of Louise, an opera by Gustave Charpentier. At the time, the Opéra Comique was programming an impressive number of rather conventional lyrical works that did not prepare the public for novelty, and Debussy was already wary of the reception which would be given to his work:

People don't like beauty because it's embarrassing... I assure you that I would love to see Pelléas played in Japan!


Georges Hartmann. His successor refused to continue to pay an advance on future works, leaving the couple without resources. Pierre Louÿs, who was familiar with the rue Cardinet and who had often "helped him out", describes their situation perfectly, declaring that these poor little Debussy drag on a life where there is certainly more love than steak !!

This is confirmed by Claude in a letter to his wife on April 25, 1900 on the occasion of the first anniversary of their meeting: :

Let me tell you how happy I am to have associated my life definitively with yours...if there are sometimes tears, behind there is the sun...However, we have to fight a little more. And for that I count on you who are my joy, my pleasure, my happiness and also my highest and most beautiful hope!!


However, the young woman's frailty was first seriously revealed in the summer of 1900 when Lilly stayed at the Dubois Clinic from August 14 to 23, following a miscarriage


Claude then wrote to Pierre Louÿs on August 25th :

It seems that her organism is generally affected and (this between us) she has a beginning of tuberculosis at the top of both lungs. We have to deal with this as soon as possible, by sending her to the Pyrenees for three or four months ... You see what this represents in terms of moral suffering; add to this a material side that has been absolutely miserable for many days already!


This stay did not happen for the reasons he invokes. Did Lilly come to Bichain? There's no testimony or documents to prove it. It wasn't until the summer of 1901 that letters and a photo attested to the presence of the couple in this village.

Three summers at Bichain - 1901, 1902 and 1903

The summer of 1901 was spent at Bichain with her parents and Claude worked on the orchestration of Pelléas et Mélisande.


During the first performance, which took place on April 30, 1902 at the Opéra Comique, René Peter, who attended, noticed :

On the ladies' side, a few pretty ones, among whom Lilly Debussy stands out, haloed with luminous blond hair. In front of a stormy room, Lilly, very pale, attends all this from her stagebox, trying to keep an even face.


At the end of the performance, a promenade in a banger in the Bois with Lilly and a friend shows a Debussy:

... proud... above human poverty... not a word was said of Pelléas!

In July 1902, Claude was in London where he went to see Messenger. The somewhat childish tone of his letters suggests the detachment that is about to come.


On her return, Lilly is ill - from kidney stones - and a stay in the country is strongly advised by the doctor:

The little mysterious being that you are, has the unfortunate ability to collect the most diverse diseases, as well as the most unexpected.


The financial difficulties of the household bring him close to Lilly's parents in Bichain: complete rest with Claude spending his life among the animals which, in this country as in many others, are far superior to people.


In June 1903, once again a little unwell, Lilly went alone to Bichain, did some painting work at her parents' house and received letters from Claude, whose tone had again lightened:

How nice you must be with a brush in your hand!


He came to join her on July 10 and while working at Les Trois Estampes and La Mer, he plans, to please her but without really believing in it, to acquire a piece of land in which there is a pond:

"I'm afraid that my dreams of ownership are in this pond."


And that’s what happened, the Debussy family never owned property in Bichain

Lilly Debussy in 1902

Claude Debussy birthplace

Saint Germain en Laye


1904, the break

During the period following their return to Paris, the couple were invited to Emma Bardac, the mother of one of Claude's students, in her private mansion on rue de Berri. Lilly, uncomfortable in this world different from her own, gave up going there, nevertheless encouraging Claude's presence, it was necessary for his career

Emma Bardac was the mother of Raoul Bardac to whom he gave composition lessons. In her forties, beautiful, rich, intelligent and cultured, she was also a musician and knew Debussy's melodies for having sung them at social events. Complicity is born from this relationship.


Did Emma walk through his door the day Claude had asked Lilly to go to a friend's house, a neighbor, as he wrote to Pierre Louÿs on June 12, 1904, to explain that their wives had missed each other? 


On 15 July 1904, Claude decided to send Lilly to Bichain. According to his own expression, he puts her curtly to the wagon and then writes to her: 

Don't think I was happy to put you curtly in the wagon, it was even hard! Only for reasons that I will tell you later... it was necessary... Then I have to find new things, otherwise I'll lose it; for some time now I've been worried about turning in the same circle of ideas, it seems to me that I've found a new lead, that's why I don't dare to let it go, whatever it costs me...  It's also a question of life...If I haven't always been nice to you, at least I have to be useful to you. Besides, you couldn't stand a life worse than our present one, it was necessary to choose between two evils... God willing, I chose the lesser one?

There are dangerous turns in life that make it more difficult for me by the fact that I am a man of art (what a job!) and your husband. Try to understand me and not be angry with me and above all don't lose an opportunity to laugh as you love to do.
The passionate tenderness of your old Claude.
My kindest regards to your family


On the 19th, he tries to justify the change in his behavior:

I am seriously in the wrong for not explaining myself enough... a frequent mania among people who are forced  to think a lot, and often, what you took for indifference was only a "teddy bear" melancholy so hard to shake!


After telling her that she was a very spoiled little girl who does not like to have her will or whim discussed, he makes a comment of a cheap philosophy :

""You see, my poor darling! An artist is a detestable interior man, and perhaps also a deplorable husband? Moreover, by turning the question around, a perfect husband often produces a pitiful artist?
It's a vicious circle."



Then he gives us details about Lilly's place of residence in Bichain, in the summer of 1904

So you live in that big house whose portrait you had the gracious thought of sending me... how many happy days it contains! 

It was probably the Champion’s farm at 29 rue Notre-Dame, in front of which Lilly stands with Juliette Champion on this beautiful photo given to Marcel Dietschy by an inhabitant of Bichain.


Still on the 19th :

I hope La Mer will let me go, so I can join you around August 15th.
Tell "my Texiers" that I'm not proud of not being able to make them mad, but I'll make up for it, kiss them for me - they know I love them.


Five days later, he concludes :

The momentary estrangement from our two lives will teach us better than any reasoning what we are to each other.

His affection for his in-laws is expressed again, as well as the slight contempt for the "locals":

I very much regret that my Texier family are upset, obviously the reasons that make me stay in Paris are perhaps not understandable for them; all the same, you have to make them understand that there is above all no indifference from me.
I thank the people of Bichain for regretting me so much, but when I am there, they see me very little, it must not deprive them much not to see me at all. Thank Mr. Champion for his roses, they badly endured the trip; the absurd heat here is not going to help them recover.
Give Mr and Ms Champion my regards as well as peach-skinned Juliette.


Curiously, at the end of July, he made a surprise return trip to Bichain with his friend Dr. Abel Desjardins in Lucien Fontaine's car - no doubt with the top down - during which they were hit by a thunderstorm.


July 28th:

Still, I'm sorry you were worried... We got a lot of water, but the storm must have been less on our side than on yours. And after various incidents inseparable from motorsport, we returned to Paris at 1 am..

Abel and Lucien were delighted with your welcome... It's true I could have been jealous of the joy you showed to see them. In short, between a surgeon and an artist, there's a world of difference!


On the 30th, he sends her some money and clumsily tries to reassure her:

...I am beginning to be an old man who, if he has never learned the practical things of life, has suffered a lot, without saying too much, because it is useless, and it is the best school to understand or excuse others. So, if I didn't answer right away, don't be upset or get worried. In any case I hope to see you around the end of next week, I’m not saying which day... on purpose!


It is finally on August 11th that he writes to her from Dieppe (where he is with Emma), the letter which will put an end to their relationship for good:

I'm going to London with J.E. Blanche* who kindly offers me the trip and the stay. Now forgive me for what follows. Perhaps I would have done better to tell you during my trip to Bichain; I could not find the time nor, perhaps, the courage to tell you... First let me tell you that I have the greatest possible tenderness for you, and it only makes it more painful for me to say what I believe is fair to say to you today. I have a very clear conviction after these days spent away from you, when I was able for the first time to reflect coldly on our life, that, while having loved you very much, I had never made you as happy as it should... ... I remembered those annoying moments when you asked me to give you back your freedom...Why do I have to agree with you today...We are no longer children, so let's try to get out of this story, quietly and without getting people involved......I could no longer work as I wanted with that annoying worry of not knowing where I was going....for all the material things, I leave it up to you to settle them at your convenience. Whatever you ask me to do will be fine. It's obvious that this letter will hurt you, if I judge by what it cost me to write. But why spoil something that was beautiful and could perhaps have been even more beautiful for longer.The last thing I will ask is that you be careful to keep the memory of it, without mixing in it the narrow and ridiculous opinions of people who have never known how to love or devote themselves. If you understand me, you will forgive me for having done you a little harm, and you will believe that I remain tenderly devoted to you.

Claude Debussy


In Paris on August 22nd, he sends 250 francs to Bichain with a laconic note :

It seems to me that it's rather useless for us to see each other at the moment, it would be too sad. Next week I'll ask you to see me.


In the summer of 1904, the composer's mother made a trip to Bichain to pay her son's unpaid rent.


Lilly returns to rue Cardinet, a meeting takes place between the two spouses because, the next day Claude writes to her from Dieppe that he has ... come back tired, broken, not knowing very well what to do or what to think .. More than ever I need peace of mind, even to the point of wanting to be dead; for whatever I do I will certainly harm someone. Above all, I beg you, be calm, don't increase this bad literature in the scandal columns, you are worth better than that and nothing is completely lost for you... You are young" as poor Golaud roughly says (allusion to one of the characters in Pelléas et Mélisande)

No doubt he has already received the announcement that she will repeat her suicide four times, because on October 13, she shot herself with a revolver and received a bullet in her stomach, which settles in the mass of a vertebra. She was taken to the clinic on rue Blomet where Abel Desjardins was operating. The operation was a success. Mary Garden and the couple's friends stand up for Lilly, open a subscription and rent her a room at the American Hotel on Friedland Avenue. On November 4th the press took over the event. Lilly moved to 104 avenue de Villiers in the 17th arrondissement. After many battles, a kind of nightmare, the divorce was pronounced on August 2, 1905. Claude had to pay Lilly a pension of 400F per month plus a life annuity. These sums were only paid until 1910 and a sentence for non-payment amounting to 30,000 F was pronounced in 1916, two years before the composer's death.


In 1954, the writer Marcel Dietschy, one of Debussy's biographers, collected a few testimonies about Lilly Debussy, including that of the publisher Robert Legouix, who had been commissioned by her to sell the sketches of the Nocturnes. Having proposed them at the Library of Congress in Washington, a delegate came to Paris and Lilly, suspicious beyond words, refused to part with them until she had the money. Legouix threatened to drop the case, so she finally agreed to part with them, but on the condition that everything would be settled within five minutes and not a second more. The Americans laughed. Legouix told Lilly she shouldn't count on him anymore. He understood why Debussy had abandoned such an impossible woman..


In 1908, a play, La femme nue, by Henri Bataille was a great success; it was inspired by the break-up between Claude and Lilly Debussy.

Portrait of Lilly by Lucien Monod

Birthplace of Claude Debussy, Saint Germain en Laye


According to Marcel Dietschy, Lilly Debussy, who has become Texier again, became friends after her divorce with Edmond Rist, Lucien Monod - who sketches her portrait with three pencils - and Léon Vallas. She was irreproachable and remained faithful to the memory of Debussy.


She died in Paris on 17 December 1932 at her home on Avenue de Villiers..


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