The Burning Fiery Furnace
Second parable for church performance (duration 1 hour and 5 minutes)
Libretto by William Plomer, after the Book of Daniel, chapters 1-3
A quick introduction
When was it written?
October 1965 – 5 April 1966. The first performance was on 9 June 1966 in Orford Church, in the Aldeburgh Festival.
What’s it about?
King Nebuchadnezzar sends three men to their deaths by burning for refusing to worship an image of the God Merodak. They are saved by an angel and emerge unscathed from the flames.
What does it sound like?
There are some wonderful percussive sound effects in this piece, created by Britten’s collaborator the percussionist Jimmy Blades. In common with the other two church parables, the singers are all male, and there is plainsong as well as other processional elements within the piece.
Watch & listen
Did You Know?
1. Britten provided a cryptic update about a promised ‘companion piece’ for Curlew River in the newsletter Faber Music News during the summer of 1965. It was to be ‘on the theme of Nebuchadnezzar, and ‘to be given its première at next year’s Aldeburgh Festival.’
2. It has a number of unusual instruments in its orchestra, including alto trombone, Babylonian drum and a lyra glockenspiel.
3. Dedicated to Donald and Kathleen Mitchell. Donald Mitchell was Britten’s publisher at Faber Music at the time.
4. A film called Workshop about the Decca recording of the opera was made by the BBC in 1967. It was performed in Orford Church and captures Britten, working with performers and producer John Culshaw, sometimes bemused by technology.
5. Following the premiere of The Burning Fiery Furnace Britten said to his assistant David Matthews, who had copied the score, ‘I hope you enjoyed listening to your notes?’
Time and Place: Babylon, 6th century BC
The Herald steps forward to announce that the king Nebuchadnezzar has commanded a royal feast to be given in honour of three men from Israel – Ananias, Azarias and Misael – who have been appointed to rule over three provinces in Babylon. The king enters accompanied by the obsequious Astrologer. The three Jews are to be given new names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. During a divertissement given by three young entertainers the Astrologer notices that the three men are refusing all food. When they decline even to drink the wine offered, the insulted King rises and leaves the feast in confusion. The Herald enters to announce that a golden image of Merodak, the great god of Babylon, is to be set up. Anyone refusing to worship the image shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. The instrumentalists warm up for their processional march while the Jews pray. While the Courtiers pay homage to Merodak, the three men refuse to serve the image of gold. The furious king demands they be thrown into the fire. The furnace is heated seven-fold, but the men emerge unscathed. The astonished king dismisses the Astrologer and the image of Merodak falls. The King, Courtiers and three Jews sing a Benedicite in praise of the one God. The Monks resume their habits and the Abbot draws a moral conclusion. The Monks process away from the acting area, chanting the plainsong with which the work opened.
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