The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op.77, a second parable for church performance (October 1965 – 5 April 1966, Britten aged 52)
Dedication To Donald and Kathleen Mitchell
Text William Plomer, from the Book of Daniel, Chapter 1-3
Taken from the Decca recording with the composer, with Peter Pears as Nebuchadnezzar, Bryan Drake as the Astrologist, and John Shirley-Quirk, Robert Tear and Victor Godfrey as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
After the success of Curlew River, it was not long before Britten was drawn back to his newly world of the church parable. Initially he felt his second work in the form was to be Tobias and the angel, but after discussions with librettist William Plomer it was felt the story of The Burning Fiery Furnace was ideal for dramatisation in this area.
In the Biblical story, three Israelites – Ananias, Misael and Asarias (renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) – are in the court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. They incur his wrath for failing to partake in the feasting of his subjects, and even more so when they refuse to bow down to his god, the gold statue Merodak. As punishment they are thrown into a furnace so hot that it burns up the guards who take them there – but while in the furnace they are saved by an Angel from Heaven in the likeness of the Son of God, who appears as a fourth man walking in the flames. As they emerge unharmed, the king is converted, renounces his god, and promotes them to prominent positions in his kingdom.
The Japanese elements of this story are less obvious than in Curlew River, but Britten retains the format of the performers (including the musicians this time) processing into the church in robes, assuming their dress for the parable, and telling the story in character. The musicians join in a procession around the church half way through, when the group are telling of the feasting in the Babylonian court. They then return to their seats to continue the story, which finishes once again with the ensemble robing up and processing out of the church.
Arnold Whittall notes an important difference at this point. ‘At the very end, the composed Benediction and Amen uncannily disturb the modal purity of the recessional chant, as if to remind the listener that intolerance and crude paganism have not yet been removed from the face of the earth.’ He also notes how ‘the nature of the biblical story involves the kind of direct confrontation between good and evil which is very different from the central issue of Curlew River.’
The ‘brazen alto trombone’, as Whittall calls it, is used by Britten to exaggerate the pagan practices used by Nebuchadnezzar and his subjects. Yet the music itself is ‘not noticeably more chromatic; indeed, it is particularly rich in prolongations of such fundamental harmonic elements as the root and fifth of the D major tonic triad.’
As Tony Palmer’s famous documentary on the recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace in St Bartholomew’s Church Orford reveals, Britten uses some specifically ‘Babylonian percussion’, assembled and even built by his percussionist James Blades. These include a specially constructed bass drum, ‘lyra glockenspiel’, authentic cymbals, an anvil (made from part of a Rolls Royce!) several small wooden implements, and five Chinese drums, often played with thimbles.
Writing in her new book The Operas of Benjamin Britten, Claire Seymour looks at Plomer’s libretto, suggesting ‘perhaps it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the testing of the Israelites’ moral willpower is suggestive of the plight of homosexuals in Britain in 1966, who were metaphorically thrown into a ‘furnace’, forced to ‘change their names’ and deny their sexual identity. John Bridcut concentrates purely on the music, saying that ‘the musical rewards will be greatest for those who patiently let the oriental manner and flavour of the piece wash over them.’
If Curlew River is an ‘East meets West’ parable, then The Burning Fiery Furnace is ‘Middle East meets West’. Britten’s choice of story is ideal for this setting, especially if experienced in a live performance late at night in church, where it makes a very strong impression.
Getting the musicians robed up and involved in the story is a really strong dramatic touch, for their part in the increasingly wild feasting, as the Babylonians prepare to reveal their god, brings the music to an orgiastic height. The glissandi on the alto trombone are key here, the instrument brilliantly signifying the complete loss of control among the subjects, the feasting now completely out of hand. This means that when Nebuchadnezzar glimpses the Son of God in the furnace, Britten is able to pull the music right back, introducing a strange stillness as the reality dawns on the king, the plot completely turned on its head.
As Arnold Whittall observes, the chant as the procession makes its way into the church is a much more restful one, and has a more obvious tonal centre. The harmonies Britten uses have richness and warmth, happy to take D as their base but gradually losing this relative comfort as the festivities become wild. There are instants however when Britten takes the four different notes of the chant and clusters them together in a rich chord, in one moment taking us away from a provincial parish church to the Middle East.
The parable itself has a lot more action and hedonism than Curlew River, with the feasting, drinking and entertainment for the king, with a comic part for his astrologer included. However Britten still manages to make the king’s character a source of fascination. As he consults the astrologer on how the stars are arranged there is a keen sense of vulnerability, and the monarch is not as invincible as he first appeared.
I was not personally so keen on the sequence given over to The Entertainers (a group of boys dancing in costume), and their continued motif ‘do you know why? Of course I do! So do I!’ became wearing after a while. But as the story gathers pace and the music veers out of control, Britten keeps a firm hand on the drama, building a keen anticipation among his audience.
The Burning Fiery Furnace, then, is a powerful story in which Britten gets thoroughly immersed, both in his dramatic setting and an exotic musical language, somehow achieved with just eight instrumentalists at his disposal. It is not as emotionally affecting as Curlew River, perhaps, but is a worthy successor in a genre all of Britten’s own.
Peter Pears (Nebuchadnezzar), Bryan Drake (Astrologer), John Shirley-Quirk (Shadrach), Robert Tear (Meshach), Stafford Dean (Abednego), Peter Leeming (Herald and Leader of the Courtiers) English Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Tony Palmer’s famous documentary of the recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace is mandatory viewing, a fascinating film that follows Britten, producer John Culshaw and their ‘family’ through the sessions in St Bartholomew’s Church Orford, as well as examining the effect on the Suffolk community when the engineers were in town. There are some pertinent insights into Britten the conductor and the orchestrator, especially when James Blades illustrates the percussion at his disposal.
Britten it is who ‘conducts’ this only recording of the parable, with very strong performances from Pears as Nebuchadnezzar and Bryan Drake as the Astrologer. The three Israelites are brilliantly played, too, by John Shirley-Quirk, Robert Tear and Victor Godfrey. The instrumentalists are superb, especially Blades but also harpist Osian Ellis and particularly alto trombonist Roger Brenner.
Britten’s recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace, still the only available version, can be heard here as part of a previous Decca edition, Britten conducts Britten.
Also written in 1966: Barber – Antony and Cleopatra
Next up: The Golden Vanity, Op.78