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Breaking: Britten’s doctor rubbishes syphilis report

In tomorrow’s Guardian, Charlotte Higgins gains access to the composer’s medical notes, which were not available to his biographer, Paul Kildea. She also talks to the senior registrar who looked after Britten in hospital at the time Kildea says he was found to have syphilis. The notes give no indication of venereal disease, even by euphemism, and the cardiologist says the circumstances described by Kildea are ‘rubbish’.

Read the debunking here.

britten boys

(c) Brian Seed/Lebrecht Music&Arts

And here, exclusively, is a Slipped Disc copy of Britten’s death certificate: BRITTEN~DEATH CERTIFICATE

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  1. Kildea’s theory sounds like gossip filtered through a game of telephone tag – mixed with a sprinkle of the homophobia that seems to be making the rounds in Classical music these days. “Since Britten was gay, he, therefore had to have also been a syphlitic paedophile.”

    If Kildea can’t produce real documentation that proves this, he’s simply talking out of his…trombone bell.

    • Nicholas Riddle says:

      It seems rather unlikely that Paul Kildea would be sprinkling homophobia round, but I agree that there is an atmosphere of potential homophobia about the story – although I have no idea what the attitudes of the people quoted by Kildea might be. It could also be a genuine mistake: Ross may have spoken to Davies about Britten and then spoken about another patient who DID suffer from syphilis and the stories became conflated. Who knows how it happened? It just seems clear that the documentation and others who were close to the situation speaks with a single voice: It certainly wasn’t syphilis.

      On the other hand, to support your contention about homophobia, the Daily Mail, which already tried to smear Britten with Savile references, was quick off the mark to report the syphilis claims with what seemed to me to be lip-smacking pleasure at having a kind of “sick gays” story to recount. That perhaps tells us much about how this story has played into the hands of homophobes, certainly not for the first time in the history of misleading reportage about Britten

  2. Nicholas Riddle says:

    It seems to me that you, Norman, and the Guardian (now) have got this right. I was astonished at this claim, which seemed to me to fly in the face of likelihood in so many ways. Worst of all, it seemed to be a recurrence of the sort of thing that seriously marred Humphrey Carpenter’s biography: in that case, looking for something salacious to report or at least imply in (it seems to me) an attempt to maximize the sales of the book. Carpenter took mere gossip and, in the teeth of no evidence whatsoever, elevated it into “no smoke without fire” implications. Now Paul Kildea seems to done something of the same by taking a single piece of third-party reporting and surmising that it might be correct. The uncorrected proof copies of the book have these sections carefully blacked out, so they were obviously identified as having the money-making potential, not to be revealed to those who would see these copies in advance of the marketing deadlines, and the fact that these have been included in the promotional excerpts published in the Telegraph confirms that.

    Now, this is all a great pity, it seems to me, because the rest of the book is extremely readable, and frankly, Kildea “gets” Britten a great deal better than most of the people who have written about him. Throughout he seems to have been able to get into his psyche, and to make sense of what was going on in his mind. It is streets and streets ahead of Carpenter, and while quite honest about the composer’s moodiness and difficulties with relationships with many of those around him – he was after all human – this is all to the good, because it makes him a real and credible person and not just the object of a hagiography. A book that does this did not need to stoop to reporting as fact something that was so flimsy, and now so easily disproved.

    Incidentally, I remember 1973 very well, and while venereal disease was not something a respectable person would want attached to his or her name any more than they would now, it is ridiculous to think that medical notes by that time would have concealed something of such significance. It seems to me highly unlikely that someone like Ross (the surgeon) would have falsified notes under any circumstances – the more so because medical records were still regarded as being so confidential, even the patient could be prevented from seeing them.

    I hope this doesn’t stop people from reading the book for its good qualities.

  3. Just a thought. Would it have been legal to cover this up? Isn’t syphilis a notifiable disease, so that the authorities have to be informed if anyone has it, as well as partners? Anyway, surely it would be a grave violation of medical ethics to cover up such a condition to the extent of not putting it in medical records, or telling the cardiologist who was treating him.

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