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Was late Britten afflicted by syphilis?

The Telegraph has published an extract from Paul Kildea’s forthcoming biography of Benjamin Britten in which he attributes the unsuccessful heart surgery that made him an invalid to previously undiscovered tertiary syphilis, presumably contracted from his lover, Peter Pears.

Kildea’s evidence is based on something the surgeon, Donald Ross, confided ten years later to a cardiologist friend, Hywel Davies. There are more holes in it than there were in Britten’s heart. Having just emerged from a bout of late Britten, my scepticism is founded on the following qualms:

Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach


photo: (c) Brian Seed/Lebrecht  Music&Arts

1….It is substantively documented that Britten was reduced to invalidity by a minor strike he suffered during the six-hour operation.

2… According to Kildea’s own account, one of the consultants involved mistakenly diagnosed him as an alcoholic.

3… British cardiac surgery in the early 1970s lagged behind the advances in other countries.

4… If Britten had syphilis, the doctors would have been ethically obligated to contact his sexual partner or partners. There is no suggestion in Kildea’s argument that Peter Pears was ever informed.

Britten’s death was correctly registered as the result of congestive cardiac failure. It was a failure that British cardiac medicine failed to treat with the confidence that would be expected in 2013.

Kildea’s ‘discovery’ strikes me as little more than stale medical gossip. But I’ll run it past some consultants and see what they think.

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  1. Who cares if he was afflicted by syphilis? Perhaps the readers of The Sun would care, but I don’t think many of them have ever heard of this 20th century genious.

    • Within the context of biographies on famous musicians, the turning point was
      Joan Peyser’s ” Bernstein : a biography ”
      The challenge is to embrace some of her frankness about the private life of the subject, but couple with a probing intelligence.

  2. Even if he did have syphillis – so what? I am a bit concerned that there have been a lot of attacks on Britten of late with seemingly very little basis. Most concerneing of all was an article in the Guardian a few months back that argued he was a paedophile. Now, I’m not justifying anyone being a paedophile, and as in the Savile case, clearly something needs to be done about who knew what etc etc but to label someone as a paedophile with very little basis when they cannot defend themselves is poor in my view

  3. There was a 2nd cause of Death registered on the Death Certificate

    Aortic Incompetence.

    I have a copy of the death certificate if you would like a copy

  4. Hmmm it’s like the Michael Jackson case he slept in the same bed as under age boys which seems very odd today. It doesn’t seem to have hurt jacksons reputation much though.

  5. stanley cohen says:

    Charles MacKerras told me that he was invited just the once to Aldeburgh. He commented to Ben in the dining room on the extraordinary profusion of young blond teenage youths about the place, and so was never invited again.
    However, the pathological inability of newspapers to resist investigating the sexual proclivities of celebrities in general rarely relates in any way to their other more well-known talents. What they hope to achieve other than increased sales is usually highly debatable.

  6. Mark Mortimer says:

    I read an extract from Paul Kildea’s forthcoming biography of Britten in the Sunday Telegraph. I, for one, found it utterly fascinating that Britten died of heart failure induced by Tertiary Syphillis. It is a tragic thought that one of our greatest composers was robbed from the world prematurely owing to a medical condition, that, if spotted earlier, could have been prevented. (as Mr Kildea implies). It was only revealed when his cardiologist operated on him in the late 60′s.

    But intriguing questions remain (not mentioned in the Telegraph extract and perhaps which Mr Kildea addresses elsewhere in the book?) Did Britten go to his grave knowing that he had Syphillis or not? Did the doctors surrounding him, perhaps in awe of his genius and standing in British society, hide the truth from him? Kildea clearly cites the culprit (i.e. the individual who passed the virus to Britten) as his great love and musical idol, Peter Pears. He mentions that early in their relationship ( during the late 30′s), Pears (a flamboyant homosexual) was inclined to play away from home and visit London’s gay bars etc. By implication, Pears invected Britten. But how does Kildea know this for fact? Everyone knows that Britten was homosexual, in an age which was criminal to be so,but the extent to which he indulged in physical relationships with the same sex ( oft speculated boys, adult men whatever) has never been clear either way.

    The sex lifes of great composers and what they expire of is not really greatly relevant. But in Britten’s case it is strangely so. His battle/coming to terms with being gay (and his implied mortality as a result) is so central to his musical works.

  7. I would like to know a great deal more about this. For instance, if Pears was the carrier, how common is it for someone to have the disease and show no symptoms at all? I understand that this is possible for the primary stage of the disease, but what about the secondary stage? Do we know if Britten ever showed symptoms of the primary stage? When he had his infection in 1940 were other symptoms of secondary syphilis present (e.g a rash on the palms and soles?) Was his heart condition compatible with what is known of syphilitic damage to the aorta? There seem to be a lot of medical questions that need to be asked here.

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