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Benjamin Britten suffered from syphilis, says new biography

A new biography of Benjamin Britten being published in Britain to commemorate the late composer's 100th birthday contends that he suffered from syphilis and that he may have contracted the venereal disease in his 20s.

"Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century," by Paul Kildea, is scheduled to be released in February. (No U.S. publication date has been announced.) Passages from the book have appeared in the Telegraph. 

One section states that during an operation in 1973, a doctor found that Britten's "aorta was riddled with tertiary syphilis." The infection was not disclosed publicly. The author writes that "undiagnosed syphilis was then common, especially among male homosexuals, who often displayed no external symptoms."

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Britten was gay and was in a relationship with Peter Pears for much of his adult life. Kildea writes that when the composer came down with a case of streptococcal tonsillitis in 1940, he was in fact suffering from secondary syphilis.

"The stigma was large, so tests were rarely undertaken in the absence of symptoms. Gentlemen of a certain class did not discuss such things," writes the author.

Britten is regarded as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His operas include "Billy Budd," "The Turn of the Screw" and "Albert Herring." This year will see a number of festivals and concerts around the world commemorating his centenary.

Los Angeles Opera will present "Britten 100/LA: A Celebration," a region-wide festival that will feature concerts, recitals, lectures and other activities. The company will also present a revival of "Billy Budd" next season.

Britten isn't the only prominent composer who is thought to have contracted syphilis during their lives. His fellow sufferers include Franz Schubert, Bedrich Smetana and Scott Joplin. 

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