A retelling of Benjamin Britten’s last years in yesterday’s Telegraph brought a tragic note to his centenary celebrations. The article was an extract from Paul Kildea’s new biography: Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century, not yet published.
I always understood that Britten’s heart condition, which eventually led to his heart valve being replaced in 1973, was congenital. That the operation didn’t cure the problem just seemed appalling bad luck, the stroke he suffered under the surgeon’s knife one of fate’s twists of the knife. Kildea, however, claims to have new information: that when the surgeon Donald Ross opened Britten’s chest he discovered ‘his aorta was riddled with tertiary syphilis’. Unfortunately, Britten had been chosen for a tissue valve which, given the state of his heart, could not be made to fit well. This might have been different if a mechanical valve had been used. As a result his heart functioned no better after the operation, which led to his continuing decline and death.
As to the origin of the disease, Kildea I think is right to point out that it is most likely that it came from Pears, who, unlike Britten, was known for his philandering. Pears was one of the men who could contract the disease whilst remaining symptom-free. A sad irony points out Kildea, is that ‘it left Britten, the more puritanical of the pair, with a sexually transmitted disease that slowly ate away at his heart, his [Pears’] bad behaviour increasing as his [Britten’s] health deteriorated’. Perhaps saddest of all was that in the 1940s, Britten could have been completely cured by a course of the new drug penicillin. By the time of the operation, even given the choice of a different heart valve, it was essentially too late to consider a complete recovery.