Sidney Denbin obituary

Other lives: Cellist who travelled the world with orchestras and was a fixture at the Proms

My grandfather Sidney Denbin, who has died aged 100, had a life that took him from “humble beginnings” (as he would say) to playing his cello in the world’s greatest concert halls with revered orchestras and renowned conductors. He knew London when travel was largely by horse and cart, and yet by the time he was 60 he had crossed the world on 747 jets.

Born in Bow, east London, Sidney was the son of immigrant, Yiddish-speaking parents, Sarah (nee Freedman) and Morris Dembinsky. He survived TB at an early age and lived the typical Jewish immigrant experience; poor housing, communal bathing, discrimination – and a close-knit community.

He left Bow elementary school at 14 “with honours”, as he would tell his grandchildren. He looked set to work in a bakery like his father – had it not been for his family’s insistence that he learn an instrument. By chance, every child in the East End was offered free music lessons at the time. Sidney put in days and nights of practice, showing an exceptional talent for the cello. Mantovani spotted his ability and, at 19, Sidney’s first job was with the Italian conductor’s Tipica orchestra, which entertained in clubs across London.

Sidney joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1948, changing his surname to Denbin, and went on to have a remarkable career. He travelled the world, playing in New York and Beijing as well as mainland Europe.

A fixture at the Proms, he played under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Rudolf Schwarz and many others. He befriended Pierre Boulez when the French conductor first came to London (Boulez remembered this kindness in a 90th birthday message). He also played with the Philharmonia and English National Opera, finally retiring at 82.

During the second world war, he stashed his precious cello in the back of his wardrobe and was forced to seek shelter in the underground during the blitz. When called up, he was stationed in Malvern with other musicians, building instruments for the RAF (intricate work to protect fingers). At night, they entertained the officer class.

Sidney met Lilian Simon, known as Bubbles, at a dance in 1943 (one of his favourite jokes was that they met in a blackout), and they married the following year. The marriage lasted 75 years.

Together they volunteered in an old people’s day centre until they were in their 90s – older than most attendees. In her 90s, when Lilian was unable to live with him any more, he would walk to her care home every day to spend the afternoon with her.

Lilian died in 2019. Sidney, or Zaida, as he was known to his family, is survived by their two daughters, Sue and Rozzie, four grandchildren, Abi, Tasha, Leo and me, and eight great-grandchildren.


Oli de Botton

The GuardianTramp

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