Sad end for a soaring British cellist

Sad end for a soaring British cellist


norman lebrecht

February 11, 2020

We regret to report the death, yesterday in Jerusalem, of one of the brightest cellists of his generation, the British virtuoso Marius May.

Marius, who was 61, had been suffering from pancreatic cancer. He is survived by two chldren, Amiel and Alma, and by his brother, the philosopher Simon May.

In the mid-1970s, when I acquired the concertgoing bug, Marius shone like a beacon among a rising pack of British cellists – Raphael Wallfisch, Steven Isserlis, Colin Carr, Robert Cohen, Alexander Baillie, Julian Lloyd Webber – who strove to fill the void left by the terrible illness of the irreplaceable Jacqueline Du Pré. Marius was the first among them to have dates with all the London orchestras and a pack of agents and record producers were snapping at his heels.

He made his first record, for Decca’s John Culshaw, at the age of 15.

But, although his mother Maria Lidka was a professional violinist, Marius was a gentle soul, never cut out for the competitive nature of the music business. Bit by bit, year after year, he withdrew from performance. Thirty years ago he moved to Israel.

Eric L Wen, who visited Marius last week, has sent us this account:
Marius was never interested in career success. In fact, he became more than a little disillusioned by the whole marketing machinery that eventually dominated classical musical life. He emigrated to Israel about 30 years ago, and continued his deep devotion to music in the privacy of his own home to the end. He studied scores, practiced The Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of Fugue of J. S. Bach on the piano, and continued to perfect his cello playing. Despite his reclusiveness, his cello playing was better than ever.

Perhaps even more striking than his phenomenal musical gift, was his penetrating insight and clarity about people. He had this uncanny insight even as a teen, when I first knew him. And I don’t know a more loyal friend. I spent four days with him last week in Israel, and even in the final struggle with his horrible disease, he displayed a generosity of spirit, not to mention a keen sense of humor, that was really quite unbelievable. On the day I left Jerusalem, five days before he died, he took out the cello and played a few passages. Despite being laid up in bed and not touching the instrument for weeks, Marius’s inimitable sound, so full of wisdom and intimacy, was still there. It was an unforgettable moment.

He is unknown to Wikipedia, and almost invisible on Google.


Steven Isserlis once tweeted:

UPDATE: The funeral is today at Rishon LeZion. The family will sit shiva this week at his home in Jerusalem.

Eric Wen adds: I remember so clearly when I first heard him in the Haydn C-Major Concerto with the Wren Orchestra in St John‘s Smith Square in the 1970s. I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer eloquence of his playing which really stood out from any other cellist I’d heard before or since.


  • Julian Lloyd Webber says:

    Very sad to learn of Marius’ death. He was a wonderful player and I was surprised when – as you say – he began to withdraw from performing. When I first met him I thought he was absolutely ‘cut out’ for the music profession but it seems that he wasn’t. That does not detract from the quality of his playing and those lucky enough to hear him in concert will never forget his touching sound and intense concentration.
    RIP Marius.

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    I remember his Schumann concerto with Muti mid 70s at Festival Hall. Amazing. RIP

  • Mike Schachte says:

    An early death from an awful disease. From the point of view of a potential audience sad that he withdrew from performance, perhaps he was happy?

  • Fred Parry says:

    I had the pleasure of hearing him play all the Bach suites some 40 years ago at an ESTA course in Cambridge. Wonderful playing. I never heard anymore about him! In fact I mentioned him to a colleague a couple of weeks ago and he had never heard of him! Shame for the public but it is obviously what he wanted. Condolences to his family and friends

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Way too young, and my condolences go out to his family.
    What, if may I ask, was his occupation in Israel after he gave up professional music?

    • Steve Copeland says:

      How I was gifted graced these past some 12 years to be the immediate neighbor & friend sharer of so much with him & his two wondrous children ~ of Marius – his apartment on the other side of the wall of mine yes here in Jerusalem – that adjoing wall he almost daily traversed in so many conversations sharings so rich and loving. He ‘gave up professional music’ as you term it; but he didn’t give up professing enacting rendering music from his cello & with his entire life of musical ideas & philosophy writ-extending-to-large-&-mattering – & sharing in my visual art work Jewish & all-human{e} literature engaging with the religious life of the spirit & transcending the separate self-centered life through all of the above. He journeyed-on from the ‘professional’ music ‘career’ but continued & further most intimately developed gave himself over & beyond his self-fame-pursuit to what in classical Rabbinic-Talmudic thought-life-discourse is termed known as ‘lishma’ for/unto its own sake – literally ~ inherently intrinsically for what is itself truly named of and for itself with no external regard purpose. ~ The quality of his spirited life of his every gesture giving creating sharing was extraordinary. His aeeii so wondrously always well-most-caringly-considered focused spirit will continue to accompany among the rare company of greats I have been privileged to have known here aley adamot – upon these all too all so earthly terrestrial passing passing brief grounds of our visit our chance here to be as most alive as we can muster.

  • I remember a beautiful performance of the Schubert ‘Arpeggione’ sonata at the QEH. The only time I heard him live. Does anyone know if he made any more recordings? It would be fascinating to hear them.

  • Karl says:

    May he rest in peace.

  • Sharon says:

    What a shame

  • Brendan Carroll says:

    This is terribly sad news. 36 years ago I had the great pleasure of meeting and working with Marius for a concert I produced for the local radio station, Radio City, in Liverpool with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Carl Davis. Marius was a wonderful, modest and immensely gifted musician and such great company. When he heard about my efforts on behalf of Korngold, he immediately asked to see the Cello Concerto and to my delight, agreed to learn it for the next season, when he gave a superb performance. As of today, there has been not one word on BBC Radio 3 about his death. Who does one need to call at Broadcasting House about that? Wasn’t he famous enough?

  • Geoffrey Wright says:

    So sad to hear. Played with Marius when he performed Shostakovich No 2 with NJPO in the late 70’s.
    Lovely bloke.

  • Very shaken to hear of Marius’ death. We had lost contact, but back in the 80s we played much together and he blew me away with his musicianship and imagination. A dear friend, and he it was who, for some forgotten reason, met me at LA airport to break me the news of my own father’s sudden death, in 1986. There could have been no better friend to have on that day.
    But above all, someone of unbelievable talent.

  • Annabelle Hoffman says:

    The first time I heard Marius’ name was at Beare’s shop in London.Charles handed me this exquisite cello to try, stating proudly it was the Marius May Tononi. I, being a 20 year old know it all from New York City replied, the what? I bought the cello.When Marius and I first met backstage at a concert, he asked, how is my cello, to which I replied, my cello is fine. So cheeky he was.That was the beginning of a long relationship and friendship. I loved ( hated) that he could grab my cello and instantly play anything I was working on 100 times better with no effort. We would joke, that even at 20 he had some of the characteristics of an old Jew from the stadtel, the wisdom and depth.He introduced me to Schubert lieder,Goethe,Strauss 4 last songs,Fritz Wunderlich, Elizabeth Schwarzkopff, the beauty of Sils Maria. He opened my eyes and filled my heart.Im so sorry I never met his family in Israel, and regret never telling him how much he has meant to me all these years. Simon, this must be unbearably difficult, my heart goes out to you.
    Much love,

    • Martin Dunitz says:

      Dear Annabelle
      I was interested to read your comment concerning Sils Maria as I had no idea that Marius used to go there . Was he a skier?
      That wouldn’t surprise me as I always regarded him as a kindred spirit although that world seems so far removed from the one in which I knew and met him in Jerusalem.It somehow makes his life seem even more poignant.

      Best wishes

      Martin Dunitz

      • Annabelle Hoffman says:

        Hello Martin, thanks for reaching out. The Sils Maria trips were with the family in the summertime, lots of hiking, reading, cafe trinken, listening to music, and discussing Nietzsche. Marius did ski ( not great though), prided himself in very old equipment, skis with no edges. Not our most fun times together, often being lost in the swiss alps ( Verbier). Now I can laugh about it.

  • Carol Baxter says:

    I’ve just been listening to a performance of Tchaikovsy’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on Radio 3. I first heard this played by Marius May at a live concert many years ago and have loved it ever since. I often wondered what happened to him. So sad to hear of his death.