In 1972, Britten was diagnosed with “aortic incompetence”, a condition where blood leaks through the aortic valve, weakening the heart.
He underwent surgery for the condition in 1973 under Donald Ross, a leading heart surgeon of the day. During the operation, however, Mr Ross discovered that he was infected with tertiary syphilis, which was by then too advanced to treat.
Britten had no suspicion of the illness. Because of the taboo surrounding the disease, neither he nor those closest to him, including the tenor Peter Pears, his long-term partner, were informed. But Mr Ross later confided in Hywel Davies, a cardiologist, about Britten’s condition.
Following the operation, Britten’s health never fully recovered. He died on December 4, 1976, at the Red House, his home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, which today is home to his archive and the Britten-Pears Foundation.
Britten’s centenary will be marked throughout the year with a series of films, books, musical releases and performances of his best-known works around the world.
* Benjamin Britten: A life in the twentieth century by Paul Kildea, is published by Allen Lane on February 7
READ AN EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT OF PAUL KILDEA'S BIOGRAPHY HERE