The Burning Fiery Furnace

The Burning Fiery Furnace is an English music drama with music composed by Benjamin Britten, his Opus 77, to a libretto by William Plomer. One of Britten's three Parables for Church Performances, this work received its premiere at the St Bartholomew's Church, Orford, Suffolk, England, on 9 June 1966 by the English Opera Group.[1]

The Burning Fiery Furnace
Opera by Benjamin Britten
The composer in 1968
DescriptionA Parable for Church Performance
LibrettistWilliam Plomer
9 June 1966 (1966-06-09)

Colin Graham was the stage director of this first production.[2] Set designs were by Annena Stubbs. The United States premiere was presented at the Caramoor Summer Music Festival on 25 June 1967 with Andrea Velis as Nebuchadnezzar.[3]

The scale and manner of instrumentation are similar to those in Curlew River, but one notable difference is the use of the alto trombone.[4]

Clifford Hindley has commented on a reading of a subtext sympathetic to homosexuality on the part of both Britten and Plomer in their treatment of the story.[5]


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 9 June 1966
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten)
Nebuchadnezzar tenor Peter Pears
Astrologer baritone Bryan Drake[6]
Ananias (Shadrack) baritone John Shirley-Quirk
Misael (Meshach) tenor Robert Tear
Azarias (Abednego) baritone Victor Godfrey
Herald and Leader of the Courtiers baritone Peter Leeming
Chorus of Courtiers; attendants


The Burning Fiery Furnace tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar (the historical Nebuchadnezzar II) and the three Israelites, Ananias, Misael and Asarias (corresponding Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), who were thrown into a furnace for their refusal to worship Nebuchadnezzar's image of gold. However, God saves them from death, as the voice of an angel joins the Israelites in a 'Benedicite'.


Britten himself, along with Viola Tunnard, supervised the first commercial recording of this work, for Decca/London,[7] with the following participants:

  • Nebuchadnezzar: Peter Pears
  • The Astrologer: Bryan Drake
  • Ananias (Shadrach): John Shirley-Quirk
  • Misael (Meshach): Robert Tear
  • Asarias (Abednego): Stafford Dean
  • The Herald: Peter Leeming
  • Chorus of Courtiers: Graham Allum, Peter Bedford, Carl Duggan, David Hartley, John McKenzie, Clive Molloy, Malcolm Rivers
  • The Acolytes: Robert Alder, Paull Boucher, James Newby, Stephen Price, Christopher Taylor

The instrumentalists were Richard Adeney (flute), Neill Sanders (horn), Roger Brenner (trombone), Cecil Aronowitz (viola), Keith Marjoram (double bass), Osian Ellis (harp), James Blades (percussion) and Philip Ledger (organ).


  1. Warrack, John (Autumn 1966). "First Performances: Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace". Tempo. New Series (78): 22–23. JSTOR 942504.
  2. Alan Blyth (2007-04-10). "Colin Graham". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-02-25.
  3. Allen Hughes (June 26, 1967). "Britten Parable Makes U.S. Debut; 'Fiery Furnace,' 2d Church Work, Given at Caramoor". p. 39.
  4. Thomas, Christopher J. (1986). "The Church Parables". The Opera Quarterly. 4 (3): 178–184. doi:10.1093/oq/4.3.178. Retrieved 2008-05-01.
  5. Hindley, Clifford (Summer 1992). "Homosexual Self-Affirmation and Self-Oppression in Two Britten Operas". The Musical Quarterly. 76 (2): 143–168. doi:10.1093/mq/76.2.143. Retrieved 2017-02-27.
  6. Keith Grant (2002-04-08). "Bryan Drake". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-02-25.
  7. "Britten - The Burning Fiery Furnace". Gramophone. October 1990. Retrieved 2017-02-27.


  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
  • Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera New York: OUP: 1992 ISBN 0-19-869164-5
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