In time for Benjamin Britten’s 2013 centenary, Penguin is publishing a new biography. The press is full of the “exciting” findings that Britten’s heart failure and death were the result of Syphilis, of which he was unaware and which he probably was given by his partner Peter Pears.
Twenty years ago, another biography of Britten, which went to great lengths to discuss Britten’s homosexuality and even possible abuse in his childhood, was published. At the time, I asked a friend of Britten’s who was also a close friend of my parents, what he thought of the newly published biography. This friend did not like it and thought that this delving into Britten’s private life was wrong. I disagreed.
I thought and still think that Britten’s sexuality and attitude to homosexuality played an important role in his work and that the information was therefore relevant. This cannot be said about Britten’s sexually transmitted disease. We do not need this very private information in order to understand his music.
Could it be that syphilis sells more books than musical analysis of the composer’s Church Parables?