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The Origin of the Hymns of the Liturgy

by Grace Hausmann Sherwood


This interesting article gives a brief history of the origin of hymns, showing how the memory and custom of Jewish ritual was the beginning of the beautiful liturgy that developed. It touches on the Divine Office and Briviary and such hymn writers as St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas.

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The Catholic World



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The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, New York, January, 1944

Before the origin of the liturgical hymns can be explained one has to know what they are. It would be a mere truism to say that a liturgical hymn is one which has a place in the liturgy without going further and showing how it found a place there, explaining, in part, what the liturgy is and how it began. In such a short article as this only the surface of the subject can be scratched. One can merely record how various hymns came to be used in the liturgy, remained in it or were supplanted by other, newer hymns.

The liturgy is a living thing. As time has gone on there have been additions to it, changes have crept in. New feasts have been added to the Church's calendar, new offices and hymns composed for these feasts—the Feast of Corpus Christi, for instance, ordered to be observed throughout the world by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and the Feast of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1935. To understand this process one has to go back to the time when the Christian liturgy began and how, which means, stripped of non-essentials, the manner in which the apostles first celebrated the Eucharist and the way in which they and their followers gathered together for prayer. It was in these two services that the Christian liturgy, as we know it today, had its beginning and to these two we owe all our liturgical hymns.

In examining these sources of the liturgy we have to keep in mind that the apostles and their first disciples were Jews and, as Jews, were accustomed to going to the temple for prayer. This is important to remember because by the time of our Lord's coming on earth the Jews had developed an extensive liturgy, consisting of the temple worship, which centered around the sacrifices offered there by the priest and the synagogue worship, the latter derived, most likely, from the older temple worship. In addition to these there was a ritual which had grown out of the custom the Jews had of assembling daily for prayer in times of fast or of national disaster or of other urgencies. These various Jewish rituals, as we shall see, came to have an influence upon the Christian liturgy as it slowly began to take form.

That the apostles and their followers continued to attend the services in the temple, even after our Lord's Ascension, we know from passages in the Acts of the Apostles. But on His last night on earth Christ had instituted a new service, the Holy Eucharist, something wholly outside the Jewish ritual. In obedience to Christ's command, "Do this in commemoration of Me," the apostles began to celebrate the Holy Eucharist among themselves, in addition to going to the temple for prayer. For this sublime service of the Holy Eucharist there was preparation by prayer, and, naturally, this preparation began to take on form, the form more or less of the Jewish ritual to which the apostles had been accustomed all their lives. These prayers of preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist are what is known today as the first part of the Mass.

When we examine this first part of the Mass—the Mass of the Catechumens, it is called—we see just how strongly the Jewish ritual has influenced it. Roughly speaking, the Jewish ritual consisted of the psaltery, prayers of petition and praise, selections from the Scriptures, litanies and a doxology which was a form of creed. These are all represented in the first part of the Mass. Taking the various prayers in their order we find first, a psalm at the foot of the altar, the Confiteor, a prayer of petition, the Introit, a prayer of praise, the Kyrie, the remains of a litany, the Gloria, the Collects, the Epistle, the Gradual, Tract, etc., the Gospel and the Creed, which ends this first part of the Mass. The second part — the preparation for the Consecration, Communion and thanksgiving afterward, are, of course, entirely Christian in their origin. There are no hymns in this part of the Mass.

Through radio broadcasts the whole order of the Mass and its music has become familiar, of late years, to thousands who have never set foot in a Catholic church. And since some of the great liturgical hymns, the sequences, belong to the Mass, such hymns as the "Stabat Mater" and the "Dies Irae," they are fairly familiar, also to both Catholics and Protestants. How these sequences came to have their origin in the Mass will be told later. But the great majority of the liturgical hymns have had their origin in that reservoir of prayer known variously as the Breviary, the Divine Office, etc.

The Divine Office is to most people, even Catholic people, a sealed book. They think of it, perhaps, as something which the clergy are obliged to read daily, they have a vague idea that Complin and Vespers are somehow connected with it, but beyond this the average person's ignorance of it is abysmal. It is because of this unfamiliarity with the contents of the Breviary that some of the liturgical hymns which are of surpassing beauty, jewels, as it were, set into its fabric, are totally unknown to the vast majority of Catholics. What then, is the Divine Office and what is its origin?

It is impossible to answer such questions fully in such a limited space. Speaking of it as a whole, the Divine Office is and has been for centuries, the daily prayer of the universal Church. Speaking of it in detail, it is a collection of psalms, prayers, scriptural selections, hymns, etc., for every day in the year. It is built about the psaltery, its most ancient part. This psaltery, consisting of 150 psalms was the groundwork of the Jewish liturgy for a dozen centuries before Christ and was preserved, intact, by the apostles as the foundation of the Christian liturgy. These psalms are divided in a way to be described later.

The Breviary itself is divided not only into four parts for the four seasons of the year but also into hours for the day and vigils for the night, a different office, that is, psalm, verse, hymn, etc., being appointed for each, although nowadays the custom of saying or singing the office at the hour for which it was originally appointed is no longer observed except in a few monasteries of strict rule. Our complicated modern life makes such a thing as rising in the night to say matins virtually impossible.

It is the mind of the Church that through the Breviary offices and prayers the soul will keep in contact with God, not only every day in the year but every hour of the day. That through its martyrology it will recall the stalwart souls who have died for Christ, through its calendar, the great souls who have lived for Him, through its hymns and psalms to praise Him, through its Collects and prayers to petition Him, through its Scripture texts to recall the words and deeds of our Lord Himself. Such is the Divine Office, to give the briefest and barest of outlines as to its contents.

The system of hours and vigils lies at its root and much which may seem to the lay mind of today to be cloudy in origin, overlaid, apparently, with medieval ecclesiasticism, becomes crystal clear when this is grasped. Indeed some of the Breviary hymns can be understood and appreciated fully only when one knows at what season of the year, at what hour of the day or night the hymn was appointed to be sung. How did all this begin? What was the source of these hours which are so integral a part of the Divine Office that in the Middle Ages it was often called "The Book of Hours"?

These hours which divide the day into four equal "hours" and the night into four equal watches or vigils sprang from the Roman division of time which was adopted by the Jews after the conquest. The Roman day began at sunrise and ended at sunset, being based upon the season of the equinox, when day and night are of equal length. Their first "hour" began at six o'clock, the third at nine, the sixth at noon, the ninth at three, lasting until six, when the day was, officially, over. Corresponding to these there is the office of Prime, for the first hour; Terce, for the third hour; Sext, for the sixth hour; None, for the ninth hour. Vespers was set, originally, for six o'clock and Complin for nightfall. These two offices, however, are of later date. These hours are clearly defined in the story of the Crucifixion.

Similarly, the night was divided into watches—vigils, they came to be called, later on. The first watch began at six o'clock, the second at nine, the third at midnight and the fourth at three o'clock in the morning, lasting until six, when day took over. "If he should come in the second watch or in the third" is a scriptural allusion to these Roman divisions of time. For these vigils of the night there were the nocturnes of Matins and Lauds, Matins being said in the three watches of the night and Lauds at daybreak. These are the offices as we know them. But how and when did they come to be connected with the Roman divisions of day and night?

One has to go cautiously in speaking of things so ancient. The actual transition from the Jewish to the Christian liturgy must have been a gradual thing, its first steps lost in the mists of antiquity. It is probable that after the custom of going to the synagogue and the temple had lapsed, owing to the persecution of the followers of Christ by the Jews, the first Christians gathered together for prayer under the guidance of the apostles. In the first centuries there was such a gathering for prayer which was held alongside of and distinct from the celebration of the Eucharist—the Agape or Love Feast. This afterward perished from the liturgy completely. But the forms for the celebration of the Eucharist and for gatherings for prayer slowly became crystallized into what is contained, today, in the Mass and in the Divine Office or Breviary. Since this article has only to do with the origin of the liturgical hymns the liturgy for the second part of the Mass, the Consecration, will not even be touched upon.

To go back to what is commonly believed to be the origin of the liturgy, at these gatherings of the faithful for prayer ancient custom was probably followed. The psalter was read, divided so that within a given time all of it should be said or sung. Collects were read, i.e., petitions collected from the faithful for various things, now made common prayer, selections from the Scripture, the Old Testament, at first, since the New was not yet written. Possibly some one who had known our Lord repeated some of His words for new disciples. When the apostles went to distant fields their letters to their flocks at home were probably read at these services. When a member died or was martyred he was remembered in prayer, again, perhaps, on the anniversary of his martyrdom—and the martyrology took form. Hymns were sung, in the Eastern Church, from the very beginning.

In such simple ways as these, made up of the memory and custom of Jewish ritual, of the habit of observing the Roman hours, of recalling the words and deeds of our Savior, of remembering in prayer those who had laid down their lives for Christ, the liturgy had its beginning. There is nothing mysterious about the Divine Office. For centuries it was the common, everyday prayer of Christians, everywhere. In the very latest life of Columbus we read that he was accustomed to reading one of its offices, at least, every day. Various causes contributed to the gradual abandonment of the Divine Office as a form of daily prayer by the laity, language difficulties, the growth of new devotions, such as novenas, the Rosary, etc. But the Church has always held so firmly that it is the proper daily prayer for Christians that she has made the reading of it obligatory upon her clergy. Many of the cloistered orders, men and women, recite it daily, also. So that what is known as the liturgical movement is nothing more than an effort to put back into the lives of lay people, everywhere, the centuries-old treasure trove of scripture and psalter, of petition and praise, of hymn and commemoration, once the universal possession of Christendom.

But all this is merely background —our concern is with liturgical hymns, how they began and when. In the Eastern Churches hymns were sung from the beginning. In the Latin Rite, however, the singing of hymns had a definite origin, attributable to a certain bishop or bishops at .a time that is definitely known. That time was the fourth century. Curiously, the liturgical hymns of the Latin Rite owe their origin to a heresy.

The Church, as we all know, was beset with heresies, even from the beginning, one of which, Arianism, was rampant during the fourth century, although its originator, Arius, was dead, and the heresy itself condemned by the first Council of Nice, held in 325 a.d. the Emperor Constantius, who was one of the protectors of this heresy, had banished St. Hilary, the Bishop of Poitiers, to Phrygia because the latter adhered stanchly to Nicene orthodoxy. While he was in Phrygia St. Hilary came in contact with the Eastern Churches and observed the part that hymn singing played in their liturgies.

When St. Hilary was released from his exile he stopped on his way home to visit his friend, St. John Chrysostom, who was Bishop of Constantinople. The latter was having trouble with the Arians who, having been declared heretics, were being denied the use of the churches of the city. Nothing daunted, they streamed into Constantinople at sunset on Saturdays and Sundays and the eves of festivals, congregating in the porticoes of the buildings they were not allowed to use and singing hymns with gusto, all night long. The hymns which they sang were doctrinal and the doctrine they set forth was, of course, heretical.

To offset this vigorous broadcasting of false doctrine St. John Chrysostom organized nightly processions, the faithful carrying silver crosses and wax tapers. St. Hilary sensed an opportunity in all this— the truth could be spread by the very same means which the Arians were using to spread heresy. Accordingly, he set to and composed hymns himself, tuneful in sound and orthodox in content and offered them to his friend, the bishop, for his people to use in their nightly processions, so that they could sing as loudly as the Arians and drown out their heresy. His offer was accepted.

But all this singing and holding of processions at night led to disorder and soon an imperial edict was issued forbidding the Arians to sing in the city of Constantinople. St. Hilary seems to have been blamed, somewhat, for his share in the disorder and it was suggested to him that, his exile being ended, he might as well continue on his journey home. Hilary took the hint and set off again, this time stopping over at Milan to see his friend St. Ambrose, bishop of that city. At Milan St. Hilary walked into much the same situation that he had encountered at Constantinople— trouble with the Arians.

It seems that Justina, mother of the boy emperor, Valentinian, was a recent convert to Arianism. Consequently, she was trying to persuade her son to turn over to that sect the Cathedral at Milan which had just been completed. In order to forestall this outrage St. Ambrose arranged that some of the faithful should remain in the edifice day and night, praying constantly. Among these watchers was Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Having so recently observed the salutary effect of hymn singing St. Hilary suggested that if the watchers were given hymns to sing neither the day nor the night would prove so long and so fatiguing.

St. Ambrose took the suggestion to heart. Whether he used some of St. Hilary's hymns or not, is hardly known, now. Certain it is, however, that he composed hymns of his own, setting them to a chant. Not only were they pleasant to sing but they were orthodox in content, an antidote to Arianism. It was by these hymns and because of this circumstance that the singing of hymns began in the Western Church. That this is so is evident from some words in St. Augustine's Confessions. "It was first ordained at Milan," he writes, "that after the manner of the Eastern Churches hymns and psalms should be sung lest the people wax faint through tediousness and sorrow. And from that day to this the custom is retained in divers places, almost all the congregations throughout the other parts of the world following therein."

The hymns which were introduced by St. Ambrose had a definite meter, the iambic, with three beats. The tune to which they were set has been known ever since as the Ambrosian Chant. The tune of "Veni Creator Spiritus" is an example of the Ambrosian Chant. The words of this hymn, however, are of later date. St. Ambrose's words for it were that of a Christmas hymn, now no longer sung. Modern research seems to prove that many of the hymns formerly attributed to St. Ambrose were the work of other men. Fourteen of his hymns in the Breviary are now considered to be genuine, four others possibly so.

One of St. Ambrose's hymns, "Aeterne rerum Conditor" which is sung at Lauds during certain seasons, so exactly illustrates the connection between the content of a Breviary hymn and the hour— whether of the day or night—for which it is appointed that I have ventured to give it in full. There are eighteen translations of this hymn and it is one of the five Breviary hymns that Trench includes in his Sacred Latin Poetry.

The theme of this hymn is, largely, cock crow, not, apparently, a religious subject at all. But when we know that "cock crow" was, at one time, one of the vigils of the night and that this hymn was to be sung at this vigil, the words of the hymn take on a new significance. Many things of spiritual significance are tied into the hymn along with the cock's crowing: day-break and the custom of prayer to greet it; Peter's headship of the Church; his denial of Christ; his tears at the crowing of the cock; our Savior's look; a petition for such a look for ourselves and like contrition. This is one of those gems of the liturgy, spoken of earlier, gems which, without some knowledge of the Breviary and the part that the hours and vigils play in it, would lose much of their beauty.

The following are two translations, one in verse by W. L. Copeland, the other in prose, by l'Abbe Primont.

"Maker of all, eternal King,
Who day and night about dost bring:
Who, weary mortals to relieve,
Dost, in their times the season's give:

"Now the shrill cock proclaims the day,
And calls the sun's approaching ray—
The wandering pilgrim's guiding light,
That marks the watches, night by night.

"Roused at the note, the morning star
Heaven's dusky veil uplifts afar:
Night's vagrant bands no longer roam,
But from their dark ways hie them home.

"The encouraged sailor's fears are o'er,
The foaming billows rage no more:
Lo! e'en the very Church's Rock
Melts at the crowing of the cock.

"O let us then like men arise;
The cock rebukes our slumbering eyes,
Bestirs who still in sleep would lie,
And shames who would their Lord deny.

"New hope his clarion-note awakes,
Sickness the feeble frame forsakes,
The robber sheathes his lawless sword,
Faith to the fallen is restored.

"Look on us, Jesu, when we fall,
And with Thy look our souls recall:
If Thou but look, our sins are gone,
And with due tears, our pardon won.

"Shed through our hearts Thy piercing ray,
Our souls' dull slumber drive away:
Thy Name be first on every tongue,
To Thee our earliest praises sung."

(1)"Eternal Maker of the world, Who rulest both the night and day and givest a variety of seasons to relieve monotony. (2) A nocturnal light to wayfarers, separating watch from watch, the herald of the day sends forth his cry and calls forth the rays of the sun. (3) While he sings the awakened morning star disenthralls the heaven of darkness; all the bands of night prowlers abandon their deeds of violence. (4) While he sings the sailor gathers new strength, the raging of the sea subsides, the very rock of the Church washes away his sin. (5) Let us, therefore, rise with alacrity; the cock awakens the sleepers, chides the drowsy, rebukes the unwilling. (6) At the crowing of the cock hope returns, health is restored to the sick, the sword of the robber is sheathed, confidence returns to the fallen. (7) O Jesu, look with compassion upon the wavering and correct us with Thy look. If Thou dost but look our sins vanish, and our guilt is washed away by our tears. (8) O light, shine in our hearts, dispel the lethargy of the soul; may our voice first praise Thee, and to Thee may we pay our vows."

Because of his introduction of hymns into the Western Church and the adoption of his chant, St. Ambrose has been called the father of hymnody. His chant was used in the Church until the time of the Gregorian Chant which supplanted it from the eighth century, onwards. The Ambrosian Chant, however, is used in Milan to this day. Of St. Hilary's hymns only fragments remain, many formerly ascribed to him having been proved to be the work of later writers.

While these hymns of St. Ambrose and St. Hilary were written for certain hours, the Divine Office with its complement of hymns, was not the complete thing in their day that it is now. To St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order must be given the credit of making the Ambrosian hymns a part of the liturgy. In St. Benedict's Rule for his order he directed that the Ambrosian hymns were to be sung in the Canonical Hours. By the application of this rule the Divine Office may be said to have become a whole, as it were, to have taken on the form in which we know it today.

It has grown in content through the centuries, various hymns and offices being incorporated into it as new feasts came into being. It has been revised again and again; the name "Breviary" having been given to it in the eleventh century by Gregory VII who made a condensation of the liturgy. At that time a Breviary could contain the liturgy both for Mass and for the Divine Office. Nowadays the meaning of the word is confined strictly to the latter. Another revision was made under the direction of Pope Urban VIII who in 1629 appointed a special committee of four Jesuit scholars to revise the hymns it contained. In this process many of the early hymns of St. Ambrose and St. Hilary were lost. The Sacred Congregation of Rites approved of these changes and Pope Urban, by bull, introduced the approved hymns into the official edition of the Breviary. This work of revision by which the Breviary lost some of its oldest hymns and gained newer ones of questionable value in their place is a thing the Church can recall at any time. These deleted hymns have not disappeared entirely, however. In their old forms they are still found in the breviaries of the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Cistercians, the Carthusians and are still in use at St. Peter's, Rome, and at St. John Lateran. The latest revision was made under Pius X., becoming effective January 1, 1911.

Four centuries elapsed between the death of St. Ambrose and Charlemagne's time, during which period many Christian poets composed hymns. Conspicuous among these composers were Prudentius Sedulius, who wrote a Christmas hymn "A Solis Ortus Cardine" for the Breviary; Fortunatus, who gave us the "Vexilla Regis," the hymn for Good Friday, also, the "Pange Lingua" for that feast (not to be confused with a hymn by St. Thomas of the same name). Conspicuous, also, in this period, was St. Gregory the Great, not only for his chant which is known to everyone, but for his hymns. Particularly beautiful are St. Gregory's Vesper hymns, each of which is for a different day in the week, commemorating the progress of creation upon that day.

The second period of hymn writing was from the ninth to the sixteenth century, during which were written some of the best known of the liturgical hymns. The great names which belong in this period are St. Thomas Aquinas, Jacopone da Todi, Thomas of Celano, and the two Saints Bernard, of Cluny and of Clairvaux. The work of these deserves taking up in detail since their hymns are known to almost every Catholic, everywhere.

The hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was commissioned by Pope Urban IV to write the hymns for the then new feast of Corpus Christi, instituted in the thirteenth century, have become the most familiar of all the liturgical hymns because of their use at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The "O Salutaris," the "Tantum Ergo," also the "Ecce Panis," are used constantly at this service. These hymns are parts of longer hymns, the "Ecce Panis" being one of the verses of "Lauda Sion," the sequence for Corpus Christi, the "Tantum Ergo" being the last two verses of "Pange Lingua," the Vesper hymn for the feast, and the "O Salutaris" the last two verses of the hymn for Lauds. The hymns of St. Thomas are remarkable in that they set out exactly and in detail what is to be believed about the Blessed Sacrament while losing nothing of beauty or majesty in the process. Such a hymn is the "Adoro Te" of St. Thomas, a Breviary hymn, assigned as a thanksgiving after Communion.

The incomparable "Stabat Mater" of Jacopone da Todi is another familiar liturgical hymn, familiar principally because it is sung at the Stations of the Cross. Because it is part of the Catholic burial service, the "Dies Irae, Dies Illa" of Thomas of Celano is well known also. The hymns of the two Saints Bernard are also familiar through extracts from them, our hymn "Jerusalem the Golden," being the last two lines of a long hymn, "De Comtemptu Mundi" of St. Bernard of Cluny. "Jesu Dulcis Memoria" is also a portion of a longer hymn.

From the sixteenth century on there have been no great hymn writers, but the process of adding hymns to the liturgy has gone on evenly. When the Feast of the Holy Family was instituted by Leo XIII he, himself wrote the hymns for its office. So that Hilary and Ambrose writing in the fourth century and Leo in the nineteenth are but links of one chain, the chain which has bound the Church in song and praise throughout the ages. Hilary and Ambrose wrote to combat a heresy, dead so long now that only scholars are concerned with it. Thomas Aquinas set into the liturgy, for all time, the exact faith of the Church in the Blessed Sacrament, a faith to be bitterly assailed by the reformers of the sixteenth century. Leo sought, by means of the Feast of the Holy Family, to enthrone the family, to combat the new heresy of our own times which by divorce and birth control seeks to overthrow it from its rightful place as the beginning of all human endeavor. Similarly, the Feast of Christ the King, one of the latest feasts to be instituted, is an antidote to the racial heresies and nationalism rampant today. The liturgy is a living thing, expanding with the spiritual needs of mankind as they become urgent. And the liturgical hymns, both those of the Breviary and the sequences for Mass, are like lamp posts along the way mankind has come, lighting up one doctrine in one century, another, later on. Taken altogether, they are a credo which the church has sung and is singing from the days of the apostles to our own.

The use of hymns in the liturgy of the Mass occurred much later in time than their use in the Divine Office. It was thought, for eight centuries, that at a service so solemn as the celebration of the Eucharist, no words of man were worthy to be sung. Consequently, the "Canticle of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace" was the only hymn sung at Mass, this being from the sacred Scriptures and therefore inspired. However, it became the custom to chant the Alleluia, which ends the gradual prayer, and as time went on, to emphasize its last vowel, carrying the "a" on and on until a tune, of a sort, was made of this chanting. It occurred to a monk of the monastery of St. Gall, Notker by name, that the time spent upon variations of tone in a single letter of the alphabet could be more wisely employed. He therefore composed what he called a "Sequence" and sent it to the emperor, Charles the Bald with his compliments. In appreciation, the emperor is said to have written a sequence of his own.

At all events, the idea took hold and a hymn, called a sequence was introduced into the Mass, at this point, after the Gradual, that is, on certain feasts. We owe some of our most beautiful liturgical hymns to this circumstance, to that ninth century monk who conceived the idea that a hymn was far better than a long drawn out vowel as a means of praising God. "Dies Irae" is a sequence, appointed for the Requiem Mass. "Lauda Sion" is a sequence, for Corpus Christi. The "Stabat Mater" is a sequence for the Feast of the Seven Dolors of Our Lady. "Veni Sancti Spiritus" is a sequence, for Whit Sunday. "Victimae Paschali" is a sequence, for Easter. There are two others, seven sequences in all. The "Pange Lingua" of Fortunatus is not a sequence, although sung at the morning service on Good Friday.

These sequences, together with the Breviary hymns make up our list of liturgical hymns. Strange to say the "Adeste Fideles," the most popular of all Christmas hymns, does not appear in either the Missal or the Breviary. Those which do have been listed and their use and history given in a book called The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, by Rev. Matthew Britt, O.S.B., to whom the author of this article is deeply indebted.

The hymns of the Breviary and Missal have been translated again and again, some of the most beautiful translations having been made by Anglican clergymen. Cardinal Newman's translations of some of them are familiar to us through their inclusion in night and morning prayers in our prayer books. But these are only samples of the beauty that lies hidden in the Missal and the Breviary, and will remain hidden until the growth of the liturgical movement brings about a wider and wider use of both Missal and Breviary, and the treasure which is now the possession of but a few will become once more a universal inheritance.

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