Music at John F. Kennedy’s Funeral

From Why Catholics Can’t Sing: the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste by Thomas Day, pp. 28-31. Reprinted with permission of Crossroad Publishing.

The Last Sung Hurrah

On September 12, 1953, Jacqueline Bouvier and Senator John F. Kennedy were married. The music for the sumptuous society event had to be nothing but the best. A tenor, up in the choir loft, sang Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling, To Jesus’ Heart All Burning, O Lord, I Am Not Worthy (with the barbershop-quartet tune by Burns), and Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Ten years later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A grief-stricken nation watched the President’s funeral on television, and many non-Catholic viewers wondered what type of ceremony this would be. Here was a great religion with an impressive legacy of religious music; here was the funeral of the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, and heads of state from all over the world would be in the congregation. The music had to be nothing but the best. While Cardinal Cushing barked his way through the Low Mass, up in the choir loft the same tenor from President Kennedy’s wedding sang the same old parlor ballads heard at the 1953 Nuptial Mass.

In 1953, the American Catholic church had at its disposal the St. Gregory Hymnal. By 1963 the Pius X Hymnal was also in most choir lofts. Yet, for the Kennedy wedding and funeral, the tenor did not sing any music at all from these two excellent volumes. As far as most parishes were concerned, religious music began and ended with Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling, To Jesus’ Heart All Burning, O Lord, I Am Not Worthy, and (the only gem) Schubert’s Ave Maria. Organists who were around at the time will remember that it was almost impossible to break the “tyranny” of those pieces. You could not easily convince laity or clergy (even those with Polish or Italian last names) that other vernacular religious music existed. Three old Victorian saloon ballads (I refer to the music only) – with Schubert’s elegant Ave Maria added to this shabby trio – were held up as genuine, traditional examples of “real Catholic music.” All other liturgical music had to be adjusted to sound like it. Even Schubert’s immortal song had to be “liturgically corrected” to make is sound more like its musical partners – which meant that the glittering accompaniment he had composed to offset the simple melody of the Ave Maria was routinely omitted and replaced with throbbing, vibrato chords.

If you look at the words of these maudlin songs which were associated for so long with “Irish-American” Catholicism (for example, the vernacular hymns sung at President Kennedy’s wedding and funeral), you will notice that a few basic ideas keep returning: the congregation as a gathering of poor children, Mary as a source of consolation for the poor children, Jesus as the private savior for me alone, frailty, and weakness. The kind of music may have served well for private devotions, such as novenas, but using it at Mass is a little like studying yourself in a mirror while everyone else is standing at attention for the national anthem. Nevertheless, by the 1960s those three “real Catholic hymns” were setting the standards for what was considered to be the right kind of “tone” for all liturgical services, including nuptials and funerals.

On January 19, 1964, Richard Cardinal Cushing celebrated a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the late President Kennedy in Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral. This was to be a Mass for the repose of the president’s soul and a civic occasion, where the people of Boston could express their condolences. Across the United States people tuned in their television sets to watch this liturgy. Non-Catholic were curious. (What do these Catholics do in church?) American Roman Catholics, however, knew exactly what to expect. The Mass began predictably enough. Cardinal Cushing processed into the huge barn of a church. The organ played. A schola cantorum, made up of seminarians, was there to take care of some of the choral chanting. It would all be very old and very familiar.

And then came the shock. Near the front of the cathedral, Maestro Erich Lainsdorf (and him not even Catholic!) lifted his hands and began to conduct an ensemble consisting of musicians from the Boston Symphony and singers from Harvard, Radcliffe, and the New England Conservatory of Music. (No one was paid. All the musicians, including the conductor, volunteered their services.) The music was Mozart’s Requiem. As soon as Mozart’s deeply moving music for the words Requiem aeternam was carried across the airways, strange things began to happen from one end of the United States to the other. In rectory parlors, convents, and Catholic households, eyes widened; jaws dropped; some members of the Catholic community watched their television sets with sputtering incomprehension. Wasn’t the religious music of Mozart officially banned in some church document somewhere? Wasn’t it against canon law to have any instrument in church except the organ? That Introit! The energetic drive in that Kyrie! That majestic Dies Irae! Wasn’t church music supposed to sound frail and debilitated, like Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling? Everybody knew that the Second Vatican Council had loosened things up a bit, but, really, Cardinal Cushing was going too far.

The Requiem Mass in Boston was indeed shocking to many American Catholics; it represented the beginning of a new era. After that singing of the Mozart Requiem in Holy Cross Cathedral, I never heard Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling in a Catholic church again (although I am told that it is not dead yet). Of course I never heard Mozart’s Requiem again either.

In 1964 it took courage for Cardinal Cushing to break ranks with his American colleagues. At that time, nearly all the bishops in the United States would have rejected outright the suggestion that a great outpouring of public grief could be expressed in the singing of Mozart’s Requiem at a Mass. (Most of their nineteenth-century predecessors, however, and certainly their colleagues on the European Continent would have had no problem at all with this kind of music, for unusual occasions.) By allowing Mozart’s Requiem in his cathedral, Cardinal Cushing was, as it were, opening up the doors of the bombshelter and letting the sunlight pour in; he was also letting everyone know that Roman Catholicism in Boston was now ready to take on everything in this wide world of ours, even the liturgical music that belonged to his church.

For the sake of completeness, we should move ahead four years to 1968 and yet another tragedy in the Kennedy family: the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. This time the method of expressing sorrow and hope took a form that would have been considered absolute madness just a few years earlier. Hosanna, hallelujahs, and hymns shook the pillars of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Members of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, played an excerpt from a symphony by Mahler. Richard Tucker, a famous opera star and also a Jewish cantor, sang Franck’s Panis Angelicus. It was quite an event – and the congregation did not hear any of the old Gay Nineties sob songs that were, just four years earlier, thought to be essential for the Catholic wedding and funeral.


  1. Interesting anecdote from a good book…but is it accurate?

    This video of JFK’s funeral does show Cardinal Cushing “barking through Low Mass”, but no evidence of a tenor in the loft singing parlor ballads. We hear a male choir singing Isaac’s “O esca viatorum” at the beginning and another post-elevation motet (edit – my mistake, not a motet but rather the Benedictus qui venit from a choral Sanctus. So was this really a low Mass after all?) It’s not exactly Palestrina (or Mozart) but it isn’t saloon music either.

    The video is of course incomplete so it may be that the tenor solo hymns are omitted.

  2. “…as it were, opening up the doors of the bombshelter and letting the sunlight pour in..”
    “…officially banned in some church document somewhere? Wasn’t it against canon law to have any instrument in church except the organ?”

    Great descriptions! Brings back bad memories from that time, so true!

  3. I remember watching the Kennedy funeral live on television and thinking what the reaction of Catholics and non-Catholics alike would have been if parts of Berlioz Requiem had been used in the funeral Mass.

    Pierre Salinger, the Kennedy White House press secretary at the time and a public relations wizard, might have been able to pull it off with cardinal Cushing.

  4. Interesting to note that His Eminence recited the Canon in a loud voice. I certainly wouldn’t call it barking but a strong masculine tone.

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #4:
      Which was highly unusual for that time, I suppose, or was the influence of the Liturgical Movement making its way that high? Just wondering.

  5. Brian Duffy : Not just at that time. Even today adherents of the EF are insistent that the Canon be recited in silence.

    Yes, and I’m one of them. Every now and again we had a substitute priest who would recite the Canon aloud, which, in addition to being jarring, made it impossible to follow along. Since humans can think and read faster than someone can recite, it is harder to concentrate. With the “silent” Canon the priest can go faster; therefore, his speed and our speed are about the same. Much easier to pray along that way.

    Once we explained it to him, he agreed. “Oh, I’d never thought about that!” In any case, we were grateful for him, and he always came to lunch with us. He’s fully retired now, and we rarely seem, but we miss him.

    1. @Christopher Douglas – comment #7:
      If the canon is being said in a language you understand, why would you need to be reading it if the celebrant is reciting or singing it out loud?

      Also, if you find the reciting of the canon so “jarring”, why wouldn’t you find the rest of the liturgy the priest is reading to be equally jarring? Perhaps, it’s the celebrant’s voice and not the fact the prayer is said out loud.

      1. @Brian Palmer – comment #8:
        Thanks for the response. My response is, necessarily, personal; my weekly experience is a Missa Cantata. After which, many of us go downstairs for a pot-luck buffet lunch. Much fellowship!

        I figured that someone would ask that question, and, for about a day at various moments–like while driving to a basketball game, I’ve tried to think of a short, simple answer, but I can’t. So, I’ll try for moderate length. I’m going to set aside the question of language, because I studied Latin in high school, and I’ve been assisting at the TLM regularly for about ten years.

        I find that I experience the Old Rite in a way that I don’t the New. Sometimes there are three things happening at once (a wag might call it a three ring circus): 1) what’s happening at the altar; 2) what the choir is singing; and 3) what’s going on in my mind. At other times, we all come together; these “together” moments are, not co-incidentally I think, the Epistle, Gospel (Word), and Consecration (Sacrament), and the proper Collects at the beginning and end. There are many opportunities and kinds of participation offered (asked?), some subtle, others not-so-subtle. I appreciate the difference in degree. Never do I feel that the Liturgy is a check-list. There is an undefinable, to me at least, natural flow, which gives all the more power to the “come-together moments”. The choir, even if singing polyphony, somehow never grabs the spot-light, but is part of the larger whole. It is possible, for more than a few seconds or minutes, for me to be “lost in wonder, joy, and praise.” (The Canon, before and after the Consecration, is part of the three ring circus, in the best sense)

        I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I’ve tried.

        Let me add that before I started attending the TLM, I first experienced this kind of worship in a Russian Orthodox Liturgy and began seeking it in my own Western culture.

  6. I don’t see a need to have the Canon recited aloud in the EF. I could get on board with a chanted Canon at High Mass, but otherwise no.

    What I found funny about the description of Kennedy’s funeral is how it could describe a typical OF Mass today. Just replace the names of the hymns. That Mass’ modern day equivalent is the standard and ideal at any parish I’ve ever been to.

  7. While silent recitation of the canon may have been rubrically correct, I don’t recall ever attending a Mass in Latin before the introduction of the VII reforms at which the priest recited the canon silently. Indeed, at my parish church in the 50s and 60s, there were microphones at the center and both sides of the altar that picked up and amplified all the prayers and readings recited there. And that parish was not a hotbed of the pre-VII liturgical movement. So in my experience, Cardinal Cushing’s practice at President Kennedy’s funeral was the norm, not the exception.

    1. @George Hayhoe – comment #10:
      Be that parish in Macon too? I recall as a child being able to hear the canon also. I don’t recall if it was because of a microphone near the priest (as in the case of the video of this Requiem) or our parish church was a small building.

  8. I have heard the Canon lots of times because of microphones or small spaces, which I certainly don’t mind, but I have never heard it intentionally recited out loud like in the OF where the choir would be unable to sing the sanctus or benedictus over it.

      1. @George Hayhoe – comment #13:
        Most EF Masses I have been to put the Benedictus after the consecration. I recall someone here likening it to the OF Memorial Acclamation, though I think the concept works better in the EF. Of course the Benedictus may also be sung before the Canon like it is in the OF.

        I like the multi layered structure of the EF High Mass, though.

  9. Robert Bruce : Interesting anecdote from a good book…but is it accurate?

    Very good question, I think.

    Several of my high school classmates were in the choir at St. Matthew’s, and I believe that they sang at JFK’s requiem. (One of them gave me one of the memorial cards that he received at St. Matthew’s that day.)

    As a former choir member myself (not at the cathedral), I think I would have noticed the “parlor ballads” if indeed they had been sung, especially since such music, which Day claims was the only music most Roman Catholics knew, was entirely unknown to me.

    Beyond that point, I think that Mr. Day is overgeneralizing here. Granted, those were not the days of great vernacular hymns in the RCC. But most parishes I attended in the DC area at that time had a small repertoire of hymns, some of which are still sung, such as ” Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “Oh God of Loveliness,” and “Praise to The Lord the Almighty.”

  10. Sorry, but I think this may be an error. I’m watching C*SPAN 3, following the Mass as broadcast by NBC News that day, and I haven’t heard any of these hymns except for Ave Maria.

    Officially, this is what you heard according to the JFK archive: 12:13 p.m.: The bronze doors of the cathedral close and the requiem mass commences. The choral music during the mass was sung by the St. Matthew’s Choir, Eugene Stewart, organist and choirmaster, the tenor soloist was Luigi Vena. The program was as follows: “Subvenite” (choir); “Pie Jesu,” Leybach (tenor solo), “Ave Maria,” Schubert (tenor solo); “In Manus Tuus,” Novello (tenor solo); “Sanctus and Benedictus,” Perosi (choir). Mr. Stewart conducted the Perosi “Sanctus and Benedictus;” the Gregorian “Subvenite” and the “In Paradisum” were led by James Walsh.

    Cardinal Cushing sounds less barking to me than droning, but he does have the weirdest delivery I’ve ever heard.

    1. @Bluejay Young – comment #15:
      Well this post has turned out to be interesting in ways I didn’t expect!

      When Day’s screed came out, Why Catholics Can’t Sing, a lot of people were gratified that someone finally gave expression to all their frustrations and outrage at the state of US Catholic church music. But a careful and perceptive scholar like Ed Foley responded to the book in Pastoral Music by speaking of opinion replacing research. Now it seems that Day didn’t get his facts straight in this excerpt – it makes one wonder how much of the rest of the book he got wrong.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #16:

        Now it seems that Day didn’t get his facts straight in this excerpt – it makes one wonder how much of the rest of the book he got wrong.

        I remember reading this book in 1991 and being mildly astonished at the intemperate way that he elevated his own local experiences to the status of a universal law, rather like the CDW was wont to do under Medina and Arinze.

        But the thing that interested me most was that here was a book published in 1991, and yet the most recent piece selected for being pilloried was Marty Haugen’s Gather Us In dating from 1984. A tremendous amount had happened in American Catholic church music in those seven intervening years. Where had Day been all that time?

        Day’s big mistake was in assuming that the reason why Catholics couldn’t sing was because of repertoire. It was not. There was another major factor that he never even discussed, so intent was he on trying to prove that the diet was nothing but pap and that priests were nothing but game-show hosts.

    2. @Bluejay Young – comment #15:
      Congratulations, Bluejay Young, on finding that list of Kennedy funeral music, carefully compiled by Irving Lowens of the Washington Star and preserved at
      Like Thomas Day, I have an unreliable memory of what Luigi Vena sang that day, even though it was only fifty years ago. I was once very sure I heard him do the Franck “Panis Angelicus” at Communion, pronouncing “inhabitas” as “inaäbitas.” But I defer to Irving Lowens (1916-1983), who said that Eugene Stewart himself told him the musical program for the Mass.
      (Mr. Lowens seems to have been a very careful man. Between getting his university degrees in music and starting his career as a music scholar and critic, he worked as an air traffic controller.)

  11. I concelebrated the papal Mass on Sunday for the closing of my sabbatical, I mean for the closing of the Year of Faith. The Vatican went to great lengths to make sure that the Assembly could celebrate with “full, conscious and actual participation by handing out to nearly 70,000 a slick, glossy liturgy booklet with all the parts of the Mass printed, including the Holy Father’s parts. The parts that Pope Francis said were all in Italian including Eucharistic Prayer III. However, all of the congregational parts were in Latin, beginning with the Year of Faith commissioned anthem which has two easy to sing refrains for the congregation in Latin but the verses in Italian and other languages. Then the Official Introit was chanted in Latin in a complex form as the pope arrived at the altar to incense it. However both words and notes were published so the congregation, if they could, could join in the chanting of it.
    The rest of the Mass parts was from the Mass of the Angels. The Gloria and Credo were chanted with alternating verses with schola and congregation, which I did not particularly like, but it gave the schola a chance to jazz up their parts and beautifully so. The Pater Noster was chanted in Latin also as were the official Offertory and Communion antiphons beautifully chanted and notes and words printed for the congregation to join if they could. Two additional Communion anthems were sung, Ave, verum Corpus and then Ador te devote which was alternated in Latin verses with the choir and assembly and notes and words printed for us to join. And we did. In fact everyone, and it seemed like the 70,000 sang their parts!
    And this with the pre-Vatican II altar arrangement with the seven candles in a very straight line and the crucifix in the center and tall candles and crucifix to boot and some 9 months into this papacy.
    The reason we could sing this papal Mass, was because of centuries’ old music that all Catholics should know, but don’t because of all the contemporary new stuff constantly thrown at them with no tradition of singing it regularly. Whereas the papal Mass yesterday had centuries of tradition that every Catholic in the world should know and many do.
    A final note on the pre-Vatican II Mass as it was celebrated prior to the Council. For most of us we experienced the Low Mass with four vernacular hymns chosen from solid Catholic devotional hymns in English, usually Marian but not always and we sung those with gusto and most Catholics continue to do today. Most of the new hymns we have are of this genre, added devotional hymns but now replacing even the spoken official hymns of the Mass, the Introit, Offertory and Communion Antiphons. Catholics could sing these official chants if only the renewal had begun with these and formed a 50 year tradition of the congregation chanting these either in the Latin simple chant or in the vernacular. But instead we are stuck to this day with devotional hymns that approximate the official chants and some down right awful and unsingable and of dubious theological worth and horizontal oriented rather than vertically oriented.

  12. I saw the live television coverage of President Kennedy’s funeral Mass as an eighth-grader in a liturgically progressive midwestern parish. All our low Masses were dialogue, and we had a Sunday sung Mass at which the congregation sang all of the ordinary. It had always puzzled and disappointed me to attend Mass in neighboring parishes where the altar boys made all the responses and the congregation knelt mute (except for the concluding English-language prayers for the conversion of the USSR).
    So while watching the president’s funeral, I could not help wondering what was going on when all the spoken parts of the Mass were exchanges between only Cardinal Cushing and his chaplains—and on top of that, those sublime words of the Eucharist, Scripture readings and all, were covered over by sung pieces, many of which had only a tangential relation to what was happening at the altar. One possible excuse, not very charitable, was that in the East people didn’t know any better. (Evidently the real reason was that Jackie Kennedy wanted the mourners, many of them not Catholic and going through a very long day of ceremonies, in and out of the cathedral as quickly as possible.)

  13. Commenters Hayhoe, McDonald (Rev.), and Wayne: Those microphones seem to have been playing havoc with the intent of the authors of the older rubrics, who did NOT want us out in the pews to hear the Canon. Not having been in any of those churches with closely miked altars, I don’t remember ANY priests praying the Canon audibly in the old days (except, as required, in a whisper just loud enough for them to hear themselves, or at an ordination). If you were serving the Mass and the church was very quiet, you might hear, very faintly, the priest saying the words of consecration. (And “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” was supposed to be somewhat audible.)
    Could some of you be confusing a few years before 1964 with a few years after 1964, when for a brief period all of the previously quiet Latin prayers of the priest were said out loud?
    And yes, Bluejay Young, Cardinal Cushing’s delivery was pretty jarring. But I bet many, many other priests praying the Canon would have sounded just about as strange if they’d been amplified.

  14. Re. Comments 22 and 23:

    Rubrically correct or not, many priests in my experience as an acolyte from 1959 to 1963 said the canon out loud, loud enough to be easily heard in the front of the nave even if the PA system were turned off. So it was quite possible for people in the pews to follow the entire mass with a hand missal, even during the canon. That might not have been the full, active participation that VII would envision, but it was certainly more participatory than saying the rosary during mass.

    I met Cardinal Cushing once during the early 60s. (He was a patron of the archdiocesan orphanage and home for unwed mothers in DC that happened to be located in our parish, so our choir sang at the service for the dedication of the new building there.) His voice had a peculiar nasal twang that was probably exaggerated the day of the funeral by his intense grief over Kennedy’s death.

    And I know that polyphonic mass settings commonly separated the Sanctus and Benedictus, with the former sung over the first prayers of the canon and the latter sung over the prayers following the words of institution. I was was attempting a bit of humor. 🙂

  15. Thank You to everyone for the comments on my book Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1990). A second edition was published in 2013. Its subtitle: Revised and Updated With New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice.

    There were errors in the first edition and the editor agreed to incorporate my corrections into a second printing. I would certainly make every effort to correct errors in the 2013 edition, if the publisher will allow it.

    I really regret that, for over twenty years, no reviewer challenged the information in the book about what was sung at the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

    Human memory can sometimes be very selective – I admit that. But the same thing could also be said about information on the Internet; it’s selective. Yes, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s Website has a page with a “verified” list of music sung at this Low Mass in Latin. But this list does mention the entrance music sung by a men’s choir O Esca Viatorum

    What else was added to or subtracted from this list?

    Yes, the Presidential Library’s list includes music played by a military band at the recessional for the Requiem Mass and I did not mention it, but this Web information does not indicate that these instrumentalists were outside the building on the front steps and the band began playing only after the liturgy had ended.

    Incidentally, the Presidential Library’s Website also has a list of liturgical music for the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis but it is not complete; it does not mention something I had remembered: a few calmly reassuring Gregorian chants that the choir sang. The music director at that funeral mass was kind enough to send me a copy of the complete list. (See Why Catholics, 2013, pp. 234-5 and footnotes.)

    I respectfully ask readers who were perturbed by the first edition of the book to read the new edition. They should update their perturbation.

      1. Six candles could be used for a Papal Low Mass on some occasions. Might that also be true of certain cardinalatial Low Masses? And the seventh candle is only used when the Ordinary celebrates. Cardinal Cushing was a visitng prelate.

  16. FYI
    An accurate but partial source of information about music used at the funeral mass for President John F. Kennedy is the CBS news coverage of it posted on YouTube by JFK1963NEWSVIDEOS. Videos were “Published on Nov 26, 2013.” Copyright 2013.

    The Mass: Part 1

    – CBS Live Coverage of The State Funeral of President Kennedy (12:00 P.M -1:00 P.M) –

    Monday November 25th 1963

    Or go to YouTube and search for “CBS News Live Coverage of The State Funeral of President Kennedy” for all of the available CBS videos.

    *At about7 minutes of the CBS video:
    Tenor sings Pie Jesu by Ignace Leybach (1817-91).

    *At 17:45: tenor sings Schubert’s Ave Maria.

    *At about 25 minutes: tenor sings, perhaps In Manus Tuas by Vincent Novello.

    *At about 28 minutes: Sanctus/Benedictus for men’s voices. Probably by Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956).

    *At about 34 minutes: a choir of men’s voices sings O Esca Viatorum during communion. Based on a song “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” (“Innsbruck, I must leave thee“) harmonized by Heinrich Isaac (1450?-1517).

    This YouTube video of the Mass from the CBS broadcast only shows a brief excerpt from the distribution of communion.

    The Mass: Part 2

    – CBS News Coverage of The State Funeral of President Kennedy (1:00 P.M -2:00 P.M) –

    Choir sings the chant In Paradisum. After that, a brass band, outside the cathedral, begins to play.

    The Website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum includes an “Accurate Listing” of music sung at the Requiem Mass (a list from a newspaper article).
    This list does not mention anything that was sung during communion.

    Other YouTube videos only show highlights of the liturgy. In some cases the film…

  17. (continued)
    YouTube has other videos of this Low Mass in Latin but all of them are only highlights. In many cases the editors have taken the singing from one section and put it behind the video for another section. The CBS version appears to be accurate – the right music is behind the right section of the video.

  18. I was 17 at the time and I’m positive I heard Fairest Lord Jesus/Beautiful Savior played around JFK’s funeral procession at some point. Does it have another name?

  19. You heard right, Ledora. The tune is “Crusaders’ Hymn,” and it has been used with a number of texts besides “Beautiful Savior.” Follow Thomas Day’s link (above) to the “Accurate Listing” from the JFK Library, and you will see it under the title “O God of Loveliness.” The Coast Guard Academy Band played it at the Capitol after “Hail to the Chief.”
    I remember hearing it too. Memories of the Kennedy death and funeral really stick, don’t they.

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