String quartet
Duration: 10′
Gemini Publications
First performance August 2004 | Sorrel Quartet | St Mary’s Church, Leintwardine, Herefordshire

Programme note:

The case of the unanswered wire was inspired by The Donkey’s Ears, a verse novel by the Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn, in which he describes the life of a Russian engineer on board ship at the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The work of the engineer is necessarily meticulous and repetitive (as well as dangerous) and to preserve the other side of his life he writes tender poetic letters to his wife, to be sent by telegram.

In this quartet I have thought of the pulsation of those communicating wires, conveyors of fact, terror and joy, but also, bound into this, is an expression of despair at the tyranny of war and its calamitous consequences.

The stoical Russian engineer prepares for battle in the closing lines of The Donkey’s Ears, ‘well dressed to meet the horrid sea,’ and in the final section of the quartet there is a suggestion of Morse code, stuttering into silence. As ships go down communication fails.


‘Its (The case of the unanswered wire) bold rhythmic drive was reminiscent of the Bartókian protean energy of Elizabeth Maconchy’s quartets whilst the moving final bars, dying away to nothing, made a delicately poignant ending to an intensely personal work that betrayed an acutely responsive creative sensibility.’
Tempo 2005

The case of the unanswered wire was first performed by the Sorrel Quartet at the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts in August, 2004 and was recorded by the Tippett Quartet on
1 April at St Giles’ Church, Cripplegate, London, and released in November 2005 on the Dutton Epoch label (CDLX 7159)