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Early 20th Century Electro-Pneumatics


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"Well, yes - but I have my point was that I can think of no other example of a 'Harmonics' stop (with a composition of 17-19-flat 21-22) by HWIII. Whilst, on paper, one or two of the mixtures at Liverpool Cathedral appear to come close. the composition of many of them was altered, either during the building of the instrument, or shortly afterwards. Goss-Custard hated tierce mixtures, apparentl"

 

In its original incarnation, as built by HW III in 1928, the University Chapel organ in Glasgow had a four rank Mixture stop on the Great of 17 19 b21 and 22nd. It was an entirely new build by HW III. Although it's shown as a Mixture in NPOR, it does run in my head that it was actually labelled Harmonics.

 

http://npor.rcm.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N11996

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Your point about the Harrison 'influence' on Willis' tonal schemes is an interesting one - particularly the G.O. Harmonics (17-19-flat 21-22), which was an apparent copy of Harrisons' recipe. There was also a Tromba, on 300mm wind pressure - although this was enclosed in the Choir expression box. Aside from some differences in nomenclature, there are also a number of similarities between this Choir Organ and a standard Choir Organ scheme of a Harrison organ. The action was indeed electro-pneumatic from the outset. *

 

Willis III was a great believer in (and promoter of) electro-pneumatic actions, together with adjustable pistons - including an array of general pistons.....

 

* p.10, The Rotunda: Volume One, Number One. Willis 'house' magazine; September 1925.

 

He also made some unwise (and thinly-veiled) remarks in jest with regard to the workmanship of Hele & Co, Plymouth. In this case, legal action ensued. There were a number of interesting exchanges in the 'Letters to the Editor' section - as well as articles from both parties.

 

Apologies for perpetuating something rather off-topic.

 

I acquired copies of The Rotunda over 40 years ago (my Dad was an auctioneer) and I remember being intrigued by the pictures of St. Magnus Cathedral and, in a later number, the new Willis organ before the case was added. I never imagined that ten years later I would be Organist there (and nine years after that be married there)!

 

Although the original article states that the Tromba unit was to be enclosed with the Choir Organ, this was not done. The two swell boxes stand side by side facing west (the organ is built across the width of the Quire, facing west, with an elaborate pipeless screen: it sounds weird but it's absolutely right for the building), with the Choir box on the south side. The Tromba is sited east/west on the north side of the instrument. Although the shutters were removed from the Choir when Henry 4 rebuilt the organ in 1971, it's still the original box. According the Henry 4, the only changes made to the layout were to slightly raise the manual soundboards to allow easier egress of tone.

 

During all of my time (i.e. after the Henry 4 rebuild) the pistons were adjusted at switchboards which slid out from behind the stop jambs. I liked this, because the switches allowed a neutral position and one could, if necessary, reset pistons while playing as easily as change stops. There have since been two new systems (or one which was subsequently much upgraded). I am rather touched that there is still a locked channel referred to as "David's settings".

 

Perusal of The Rotunda reveals a number of Harmonics mixtures, but Willis III dropped the name after a while. Pre-mutation Choir Organs were often not unlike Harrison examples in containing a wide selection of solo stops. Kirkwall originally had a Violoncello and a Vox Humana, both gone by the time I got there (damn!). Several builders took up the name 'Harmonics', but the registers themselves did not always follow the Casson/Dixon/Harrison pattern.

 

The Willis/Hele row erupted after the editor, Batigan Verne, wrote an overly cheeky article rubbishing Hele's new piston setting action as advertised in 'The Organ' (comparing it to selling a car with no reverse gear - you just put 'the hele (sic) of the foot' into the ground and push). The court proceedings were recorded in The Rotunda. Verne wrote a lot of purple prose, much of which makes good reading, but as Ian Bell put it ("A conversation with Noel Mander") he was one of those 'semi-dilettante, quite smartish people who could put on a good face', a number of whom worked for Willis over the years. I should imagine that got his knuckles rapped for that little spat. Willis later wrote to Emerson Richards:

 

"I hear Verne has set up as an Organ Architect. Ye Gods and Little Fishes. V can draw up specifications all right - so can dozens of other amateurs, but an architect is expected to specify scales, treatment, pressures etc. which Verne is incapable of doing by direct experience - for while with me he had nothing to do with the technical side." (Callahan: The American Classic Organ - a very good read!).

 

"My father was a man of very definite opinions. He basically thought that anyone who did not agree with everything he did was a bloody fool. The alarming thing was that he was usually right." (Henry Willis 4, quoted by Callahan)

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Slightly later than the early 1900's, there is the Hill Norman & Beard 1919 example of electro-pneumatic in the Major Bathhurst travelling organ. Of course it was an abnormality in that it was transported from venue to venue, but still showed mastery of the medium. (It was the basis of the Dunedin Town Hall instrument - via Wembley Stadium)

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Apologies for perpetuating something rather off-topic.

 

I acquired copies of The Rotunda over 40 years ago (my Dad was an auctioneer) and I remember being intrigued by the pictures of St. Magnus Cathedral and, in a later number, the new Willis organ before the case was added. I never imagined that ten years later I would be Organist there (and nine years after that be married there)!

 

Although the original article states that the Tromba unit was to be enclosed with the Choir Organ, this was not done. The two swell boxes stand side by side facing west (the organ is built across the width of the Quire, facing west, with an elaborate pipeless screen: it sounds weird but it's absolutely right for the building), with the Choir box on the south side. The Tromba is sited east/west on the north side of the instrument. Although the shutters were removed from the Choir when Henry 4 rebuilt the organ in 1971, it's still the original box. According the Henry 4, the only changes made to the layout were to slightly raise the manual soundboards to allow easier egress of tone.

 

During all of my time (i.e. after the Henry 4 rebuild) the pistons were adjusted at switchboards which slid out from behind the stop jambs. I liked this, because the switches allowed a neutral position and one could, if necessary, reset pistons while playing as easily as change stops. There have since been two new systems (or one which was subsequently much upgraded). I am rather touched that there is still a locked channel referred to as "David's settings".

 

I am glad that the G.O. reed was not enclosed. I would also agree about the piston setter-boards. I miss the 'neutral' option. Surely, there must be some way of incorporating it in present-day systems - even if one had to 'set' it on handfuls of stops every time one wished to use it?

 

Perusal of The Rotunda reveals a number of Harmonics mixtures, but Willis III dropped the name after a while. Pre-mutation Choir Organs were often not unlike Harrison examples in containing a wide selection of solo stops. Kirkwall originally had a Violoncello and a Vox Humana, both gone by the time I got there (damn!). Several builders took up the name 'Harmonics', but the registers themselves did not always follow the Casson/Dixon/Harrison pattern.

 

Ah, I see. My compete set of The Rotunda is a recent acquisition - I have not yet had time to have a really good look through them. I do know that Rushworth and Dreaper also used 'Harmonics' mixtures (with the same composition) - as did Hill, Norman & Beard.

 

What a shame that the Violoncello and Vox Humana had gone by the time that you arrived at Kirkwall. In fact, I should rather have had the previous Choir Organ entire (as long as I could swap the Harmonic Piccolo for the Blockflöte - I hate Piccolos; they are always unsteady in their speech). I suppose that the cathedral authorities did not keep this pipe-work in a loft above the Bishop's stable or something, did they?

 

The Willis/Hele row erupted after the editor, Batigan Verne, wrote an overly cheeky article rubbishing Hele's new piston setting action as advertised in 'The Organ' (comparing it to selling a car with no reverse gear - you just put 'the hele (sic) of the foot' into the ground and push). The court proceedings were recorded in The Rotunda. Verne wrote a lot of purple prose, much of which makes good reading, but as Ian Bell put it ("A conversation with Noel Mander") he was one of those 'semi-dilettante, quite smartish people who could put on a good face', a number of whom worked for Willis over the years. I should imagine that got his knuckles rapped for that little spat. Willis later wrote to Emerson Richards:

 

"I hear Verne has set up as an Organ Architect. Ye Gods and Little Fishes. V can draw up specifications all right - so can dozens of other amateurs, but an architect is expected to specify scales, treatment, pressures etc. which Verne is incapable of doing by direct experience - for while with me he had nothing to do with the technical side." (Callahan: The American Classic Organ - a very good read!).

 

"My father was a man of very definite opinions. He basically thought that anyone who did not agree with everything he did was a bloody fool. The alarming thing was that he was usually right." (Henry Willis 4, quoted by Callahan)

 

Indeed. I have read through the various exchanges (including those of the counsel for the defence attempting to explain the vagaries of an adjustable piston action to the judge....). Verne must have been rather too sure of himself to write in this manner. No wonder Hele's were angry.Mind you, since I also possess a copy of the Callahan book (your are right - it is a good read), it appears that HWIII was rather opinionated and dogmatic. Although, when one is capable of creating such masterpieces as the Grand Organ of Westminster Cathedral, perhaps one is entitled to be thus.

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it appears that HWIII was rather opinionated and dogmatic. Although, when one is capable of creating such masterpieces as the Grand Organ of Westminster Cathedral, perhaps one is entitled to be thus.

 

===========================

 

 

Except that he didn't!

 

The organ was made at the old Lewis works by former Lewis staff, as I understand it.

 

Courage, (of Courage Breweries), who paid for the organ, was a Lewis enthusiast, but eventually lost patience and stopped backing the bottomless pit of inept financial control. I think Courage actually owned the company outright towards the end.

 

Best,

 

MM

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===========================

 

Except that he didn't!

 

The organ was made at the old Lewis works by former Lewis staff, as I understand it.

 

Courage, (of Courage Breweries), who paid for the organ, was a Lewis enthusiast, but eventually lost patience and stopped backing the bottomless pit of inept financial control. I think Courage actually owned the company outright towards the end.

 

Best,

 

MM

 

 

Well I sincerely hope that your Compton research is more accurate than this nonsense. We know exactly who made and voiced most of the organ - all in the file. Yet another re-writing of history?

 

For the record, the Apse Organ was all completed prior to the takeover in 1919, the remainder of the organ was all completed over the ten year period from 1922 - over three years after the takeover. There are, for example, several 'Double Langward' stops, all of the reeds were voiced under the direction of Deeks, the scales are all Willis, not Lewis.

 

I really don't understand where this Henry 3 bashing stuff originates, Stephen Bicknell was an apalling example, even in the statement reiterated earlier in this thread where he opines that HW3 never had an original thought in his life! He never met him and so didn't know him and was relying on the referred opinion of others who had obvious axes to grind. It's somewhat pathetic and certainly NOT scholarship.

 

DW

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Well I sincerely hope that your Compton research is more accurate than this nonsense. We know exactly who made and voiced most of the organ - all in the file. Yet another re-writing of history?

 

For the record, the Apse Organ was all completed prior to the takeover in 1919, the remainder of the organ was all completed over the ten year period from 1922 - over three years after the takeover. There are, for example, several 'Double Langward' stops, all of the reeds were voiced under the direction of Deeks, the scales are all Willis, not Lewis.

 

I really don't understand where this Henry 3 bashing stuff originates, Stephen Bicknell was an apalling example, even in the statement reiterated earlier in this thread where he opines that HW3 never had an original thought in his life! He never met him and so didn't know him and was relying on the referred opinion of others who had obvious axes to grind. It's pathetic, in the name of scholarship.

DW

 

Well - aside from my observation that he was opinionated (which would be difficult to refute), I am certainly not 'bashing' him - nor do I have an axe to grind. Although I have only heard the organ of Westminster Cathedral , I believe it to be a superb instrument, with a number of interesting tonal features. However, I would say that HWIII, whilst not allowing himself to be as constrained in outlook as Arthur Harrison*, did nevertheless show easily recognisable traits in his schemes - particularly those for three-clavier instruments. Of course, much of this can be put down to house styles. Naturally a good builder is going to have particular ideas, likes, dislikes and innovations.

 

However, no-one is always right and I think that his strong opinions sometimes caused him to make errors of judgement - or to fail to see the potential of instruments by other builders.‡ The Courage/Lewis organ of Southwark Cathedral is perhaps the most obvious example. The HWIII rebuild of 1952 was a mistake. The alterations which Willis made to this unique instrument - and he wished to do more - were unfortunate and spoiled its character for many years.

 

Simply reading from The Rotunda and Charles Callahan's book † , it is patently obvious that HWIII was both a craftsman and a great innovator. His consoles were arguably better-equipped than those of any other UK builder at the time. It could be said that he was, in present-day parlance 'a control freak' - but I see this as the mark of a great artist.

 

 

 

 

* Compare any three or four schemes of moderate-sized three-clavier organs by H&H, between about 1912 and 1936, and you will see what I mean.

 

The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters. Callahan. The Organ Historical Society, Richmond, Va., USA. (1990)

 

‡ Perhaps somewhat ironically, the same charge may justifiably be made of Arthur Harrison's complete rebuild and enlargement of the FHW instrument in the Royal Albert Hall, London (1924-33).

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St. Magnus Cathedral: I was rather disappointed that the Tromba unit wasn't enclosed. As it is now, it's a big, bright Tuba which runs down into a truly blasphemous Trombone. It would be nice to be able to shade it down somewhat. I tend to believe in the more enclosure, the better....

 

As far as I know, none of the discarded pipes survive, in fact most of them were adapted to fit the new scheme. Willis 4 used to cut up old flutes and put cones on the top to make his Spindle Flotes, and I think the Terz was originally something longer, cut down.

 

Harmonics: Late Hunter organs used this name for mixtures. There's a very fine example at All Saints, Windsor, which is just like a similar size Harrison in all respects except for the name on the plate (even the console looks like it came from Durham and not Clapham).

 

http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N09882

 

St. Mark's, Portadown has a 1948 Walker rebuilt for which Rushworth's made a new console in 1982. The Great Mixture (sic) is 17.19.21.22. Rushworth's had a smallish tuning round in Ireland (the only 'big' firm to do so throughout the Troubles) and the rep I met at Portadown once looked just like John Lennon. I remarked on the unusual composition of the mixture. "Yes", he said in broadest Scouse, "and its a b***** to tune!".

 

http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=D01406

 

Sacred Heart, Omagh, which was possibly the largest surviving Casson and had an Harmonics IV with flat twenty-first, was rebuilt in 1964 by the Irish Organ Company, losing its original identity, and the harmonics, in the process.

 

Westminster Cathedral: Lewis knew the architect, J.F. Bentley, through his own architectural training and this may have been why he built the east end organ. In part, Willis seems to have inherited the Grand Organ, although Harrisons' certainly also tendered for it. The late Eduard Robbins, an erudite and very crotchetty organ historian, was a dyed-in-the-wool T.C. Lewis worshipper, but was scathing about what he called the 'Courage and Tuckwell' regime.

 

If I had to name a Willis III organ which I thought was outstanding, I would say St. Jude's, Thornton Heath, but it was in many ways atypical - totally enclosed, a huge lot of organ for a small church - and it's not there any more (I think Carlo Curley bought it to save it from the wreckers and it's now in Japan). Sheffield City Hall is a very fine organ, but strangled by an appalling acoustic.

 

Then there's Liverpool! I don't think there's anything like it anywhere else. I find it wonderful, but unique.

 

For a standard Willis III three-manual, St. Thomas a Becket, Wandsworth is a very fine and little-known example. This, in fact, is the working-out of Willis's plan for an organ containing all things necessary within the minimum number of registers, as described in The Rotunda.

 

There are some amazing smaller jobs around - Stowmarket UR Church, Suffolk, for example (enjoying, it must be said, an excellent acoustic).

 

Since it was rare during most of the 20th century, for organs to be built absolutely new, it may be difficult to describe any one instrument as being by a particular builder, but I am convinced that Henry Willis III was one of the greats of all time.

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Well I sincerely hope that your Compton research is more accurate than this nonsense. We know exactly who made and voiced most of the organ - all in the file. Yet another re-writing of history?

 

For the record, the Apse Organ was all completed prior to the takeover in 1919, the remainder of the organ was all completed over the ten year period from 1922 - over three years after the takeover. There are, for example, several 'Double Langward' stops, all of the reeds were voiced under the direction of Deeks, the scales are all Willis, not Lewis.

 

I really don't understand where this Henry 3 bashing stuff originates, Stephen Bicknell was an apalling example, even in the statement reiterated earlier in this thread where he opines that HW3 never had an original thought in his life! He never met him and so didn't know him and was relying on the referred opinion of others who had obvious axes to grind. It's somewhat pathetic and certainly NOT scholarship.

 

DW

 

================================

 

 

I'm sorry if I offended David with my comments, but he will be the first to know that I do NOT generally admire the work of Willis I - III beyond the reeds, which are usually quite extraordinary by any standard. (The Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organs I've played in America would give them a good run for their money).

 

If it's any consolation, neither do I particularly admire the organs of Arthur Harrison, Rushworth & Dreaper, Norman & Beard and those who sought to imitate them, whatever the build quality and attention to detail with such as Arthur Harrison..

 

The fact is, I just don't like the "Imperial" style at all, and I tend to think that anything between Thos.Hill/Lewis and J W Walker in the 1960-70's was, for the most part, unfortunate.

 

Compton is infinitely fascinating to me due to his scientific and advanced engineering approach to the problem of building organs, as well as the fact that it is an extremely difficult story to tease out from what remains of the evidence.

 

As for Westminster Cathedral, the specification appears to have a lot of John Courage/Lewis influence, but if the detail is entirely Willis 3, this may explain why I feel the way I do about it. A good sound in many ways, but so reed dominated and bombastic, which in the absence of bold chorus-work it needs to be to have any effect in such an immense space. This video demonstrates what I mean:-

 

 

Now if you add some bold chorus-work to the Willis recipe, as our kind hosts did with the following, the effect is altogether marvellous IMHO:-

 

 

Is it co-incidental that, (notwithstanding the slightly unfortunate terraced dynamics), the English reeds which sit on top of the Schulze chorus-work at Doncaster, produce a fairly electrifying sound?

 

Which brings me back to.....Lewis.

 

Best,

 

MM

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These clips are certainly interesting, MM. I must admit that, placed side-by-side, I prefer the organ of Saint Paul's Cathedral. However, I am slightly puzzled, since the Grand Chorus V (15-19-22-26-29) on the Great First Division (at Westminster Cathedral), is well-known. it is a powerful and bright stop which, with the rest of the diapason ranks on this division, provides a good deal of bold chorus work. Perhaps, for some reason, this stop was not used on the recording above. Or, maybe, the recording equipment used gave a different bias to the sound.

 

I respect your fascination with - and admiration for - the work of John Compton. However, whilst I do not doubt that he produced some good instruments (for example: Saint Luke's, Chelsea - which I have played, Saint Bride's, Fleet Street and Downside Abbey), I cannot say that I have heard or played one which eclipsed a good 'straight' organ * Their quiet orchestral reeds were not always of a uniformly high quality of tone; certainly they do not really compare with those by HWII, for example. In addition, whilst Compton may have been innovative and extremely clever in his application of extension to diapason choruses, they do not, to my ears, compare with the best 'straight' choruses by builders such as Hill, Walker, Willis (with their tierce mixtures being a grey area) or even the best work of Rushworth & Dreaper (c.f. Guildford and Chester cathedrals).

 

 

 

* I am aware that the Compton instrument in Saint Bride's, Fleet Street has rather less extension than most of their other organs.

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These clips are certainly interesting, MM. I must admit that, placed side-by-side, I prefer the organ of Saint Paul's Cathedral. However, I am slightly puzzled, since the Grand Chorus V (15-19-22-26-29) on the Great First Division (at Westminster Cathedral), is well-known. it is a powerful and bright stop which, with the rest of the diapason ranks on this division, provides a good deal of bold chorus work. Perhaps, for some reason, this stop was not used on the recording above. Or, maybe, the recording equipment used gave a different bias to the sound.

 

I respect your fascination with - and admiration for - the work of John Compton. However, whilst I do not doubt that he produced some good instruments (for example: Saint Luke's, Chelsea - which I have played, Saint Bride's, Fleet Street and Downside Abbey), I cannot say that I have heard or played one which eclipsed a good 'straight' organ * Their quiet orchestral reeds were not always of a uniformly high quality of tone; certainly they do not really compare with those by HWII, for example. In addition, whilst Compton may have been innovative and extremely clever in his application of extension to diapason choruses, they do not, to my ears, compare with the best 'straight' choruses by builders such as Hill, Walker, Willis (with their tierce mixtures being a grey area) or even the best work of Rushworth & Dreaper (c.f. Guildford and Chester cathedrals).

 

 

 

* I am aware that the Compton instrument in Saint Bride's, Fleet Street has rather less extension than most of their other organs.

 

 

====================================

 

 

John Compton was rather more than the builder of extension organs. He, (and his team of course), bridged the gap between pipes and electronic synthesis from the tonal point of view. Downside had only 30 ranks of pipes, yet sounded remarkably close to an organ with three or four times more pipework. That takes a special tonal genius to achieve...that is part of the fascination Then consider a largely "straight" organ such as Hull City Hall, or its close relative at Holy Trinity, Hull........two quite magnificent instruments, vastly improved by the Compton touch. Then consider Southampton Guildhall, where two diamterically opposed concepts co-exist and combine....that of the theatre organ and the classical organ. It is a stunning success and a brilliant concept. The technology was quite literally cutting-edge, to use a well worn description....and it really was.

 

What other organ-builder could anticipate the computer EPROMS of to-day, using purely electro-mechanical means?

 

The story of Compton is as much a story of British technology as it is a story about an organ-builder, and that's the part which totally fascinates me, possibly because I come from engineering origins and a family of very technical people.

 

In absolute terms, there are certainly better orchestral reeds, but I'd like to suggest that the Compton ones are still better than 95% of the rest. I'm still trying to discover the sources of many Compton things, including pipework.....possibly Norman & Beard (as in Wm Hill, Norman & Beard) for reeds, a suggestion of Rushworth's for the strings and possibly Walkers' for other things. I haven't yet got to grips with the source of pipework, but as I look at the old photographs and a map of the factory layout, I see little evidence of actual pipemaking which doesn't involve wood. (One half of the factory, which largely consisted of two very large, purpose built sheds, seemed to have been dedicated to erection and console work, and the other side appears to have been woodwork and actual manufacture of windchests and components).

 

I know that if I were John Compton, I'd have established my system of organ-building using standardised components, (just as he did), and then I would have bought in what I needed from elsewhere. Actually finding evidence for this is very difficult, but my instinct leads me in this direction, because the sheer turnover at the peak of the Compton years would have been impossible any other way......something like a whole organ PER WEEK when they were going flat-out. They were nothing if not ORGAN-ised. (We musn't ignore the electronic side!)

 

Consider the figures....something over 500 pipe organs of various shapes, sizes and types, not to mention the electronic organs. All built between 1920 and 1940, and between 1945 and 1960....just 35 years of industrial scale production, but with an incredible peak in the 1930's, when they built over 250 cinema organs alone.

 

So forget comparisons, because there are none. It was a method of organ-building which was unprecedented, and which has never been equalled since.

 

Perhaps the most important question to ask, is whether there was ever such a thing as a poor sounding organ from a particular builder?

 

If the answer is no time and time again, then he was a master organ-builder....and THAT analysis came from the mouth of Henry Willis IV during a conversation I had with him.

 

Personally, I can't think of a single Compton organ I would want to run away from kicking and screaming.

 

Another comment which I like, is the one uttered by Arthur Harrison, when asked if he could detect extension when listening to one of Compton's bigger jobs.

 

""Of course, with considerable imagination."

 

Best,

 

MM

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