Libretto by William Plomer after the Book of Daniel, Chapters 1-3
9 June 1966, Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival
After the inward concentration of Curlew River, Britten set out to make his second Church Parable, ‘something much less sombre, an altogether gayer affair’ as he put it. Based on the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar and the three Israelites, The Burning Fiery Furnace uses the same basic vocal and instrumental forces as its predecessor and retains its most distinctive structural features, but the work makes a strongly contrasted impression.
The attempt to write in a generally lighter vein results in a more flexible approach and a greater variety of colour (aided by Britten’s imaginative deployment of the rarely used alto trombone). Although the work is no less powerful and concentrated as a result, the wider range can accommodate such memorable diversions as the young acolytes’ entertainment during the Babylonian feast and the march before the raising of the image of Merodak when the players take up their instruments and process around the church.