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The Story Behind That Magnetic Music Heard In Downton Abbey

Six critically acclaimed seasons of the British television series about life on an English estate in the early 20th century captured the imaginations of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. A new feature film picks up the story of Downton Abbey in 1927, where the TV series ended.

Credit Courtesy of John Lunn
Composer John Lunn

The movie brings back many beloved characters, with  memorable music that once again pulls us into the drama. WRTI's Susan Lewis had the chance to talk with composer John Lunn, who scored both the series and the movie.

Scottish composer John Lunn, who studied at Glasgow and MIT, has composed operas and orchestral pieces as well as scores for BBC Charles Dickens adaptations: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. His music for Downton Abbey garnered two Emmy Awards. 

WRTI's Susan Lewis spoke with John Lunn by phone about writing for the award-winning show and the new feature film.

Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

These characters are so beloved and the music is so beloved and enriches the experience of watching the stories so much. You've composed operas and orchestral pieces. How is writing for film different from writing for opera, for example?

It's pretty different because the music is really enhancing the picture and the story rather than carrying it, the way that an opera does. But you know, there are definitely some similarities. You're charting the emotional thought process of the actors or the singers. So there's still a massive element of storytelling.

I did enjoy writing operas and also doing films. But the technical process of writing is quite different, because obviously, there are gaps in a movie; you're really concentrating on one particular cue at a time.

"I'm not trying to take people back to that period in the music. What I'm doing is much more psychological. It's much more about what's going on inside people's heads really."—John Lunn

Could you talk about that? The process? Who decides where the music goes?

Well, it's really a collaborative process. Probably the director and the editor, when they are working together cutting the film, they'll probably use music from— well, from anywhere—really to help them edit it. So by the time they've done that, then I'll come in, maybe, have a meeting and we'll discuss where they've laid what we call 'temporary music,' what its purpose is; and then I'll go away and then completely kind of rewrite it. Back to square one!

And even then, things can change because you can come up with something that actually works really well if it carries on farther through the scene. So it's very much a collaborative, a real team effort, you know, talking between the producer and the director and the editor. So you watch the movie without music and then go back and compose something. The music is just about the last thing that goes on.

And music plays different roles? Sometimes it's a transition between scenes where there's no dialogue, but then sometimes it's under a dialogue?


To give an added sense of what the characters are thinking, maybe?

Yeah, exactly. I try and do something that you don't exactly see on the screen. I listen to the dialogue very attentively. The music in Downton in particular is very carefully choreographed underneath the dialogue. And it's being used to accent emotions or even plot points or feelings.

And sometimes, it's actually giving you signals that you don't really see on the screen about the way that people are thinking about each other, or what's going on in their heads. So it's really quite psychological at times.

Right! And you have themes for certain characters, I understand.

It's more the relationships between the characters than the characters themselves.

So that might change as the characters develop and grow.

Exactly. So Matthew and Mary, for instance -- In the first three episodes, their relationship was quite stormy, and was up and down. So the music kind of reflected that. But the music wasn't really about either one of them. It was about their feelings towards each other. But, yes, of course, it had to change over time. I think they probably had four or five different themes, to be honest.

And I understand that the main theme for the show is based on the scene where Bates is arriving by train and [that music] wasn't initially intended as the theme for the titles.

That's right. I think because there was no actual title sequence in the first episode; that didn't kick in until episode two. But that material from our very first scene, we used it in several places in episode one and it just seemed to fit wherever we put it.

But I think by the time we'd finished episode one, everybody kind of recognized that this was, kind of quintessential Downton Abbey music and I never really was very happy with what it was doing for the film. So then for episode two, they asked me to do a 30-second version of it; which I did. And then they actually put the pictures to the music.

Wow. Well, how was writing for the feature film different for writing for the series?

Well, actually, funny enough, it wasn't really that different because it was a continuation of the storyline. We weren't trying to remake the TV series. We've just carried the story on except in a movie format rather than than TV. So the same themes that we ended up with on season six, we've transported into the movie.

Like every episode there's new storylines and there's new characters. And so, you know, the music does reflect as well, but it wasn't really that different.

The recording process was slightly different. I had a bigger budget. We've got a bigger orchestra; slightly more flexible, you know, recording times. I did have more time as well, to write it. I had more time to experiment and make mistakes and time to correct those mistakes. But the writing process wasn't really that different.

When you say Downton Abbey, people may think of that main theme, but there's so much variety; you evoke so many different kinds of emotions in the music.

Well, that's just a reflection of the show itself, and that's what happens in the show. So I'm always responding to the pictures and the dialogue.

What's it like to put together a sound track where the music may live on its own without the visuals. Do you change the music at all?

Well, in the case of the movie, there wasn't really time. Everything that's on the CD is a recorded, specifically for the movie. I mean in the case of some of the tracks I've taken kind of shorter cues and managed to, with a bit of work, edit them together so that they do give a kind of more meaningful picture of the recording.

On this television series, I was lucky enough because it was over six seasons and I think we did three CDs. I would take the themes and actually wrote a piece of music specifically for the CD and then we'd record it as part of our television episode; I'd tag it on at the end, and that worked quite well.

But there was just no time to do that for the movie.

When you have the opportunity to compose it just for the recording, do you also perform it in live?

Yeah, we've been starting to perform it live more and more. And the plan is next year, we've kind of got this format that we've developed of doing it live and we're hoping to expand that next year.

You've composed for other British period dramas. Does this of story in this kind of period call for certain instrumentation or certain kinds of melodies?

No, not really. Downton starts in 1912, and the music of Downtown, doesn't really reflect that period. And in fact most of the period dramas I have done the music doesn't really reflect the period either, because mainly because I'm not trying to take people back to that period in the music. What I'm doing is much more psychological. It's much more about what's going on inside people's heads really is what I'm trying to chart rather than being historically accurate.

You play the piano in the music, right?

I do. Usually we do what we call a mockup of the orchestral element using a computer and then we'll go off to a proper studio and record them. And then I usually add the piano part by myself  at the end.

So it's quite kind of organic process, but it's all real musicians. I mean, [without them]  you just couldn't do that kind of music.

It really is beautiful. Do you have other projects? This must be so consuming at the moment.

It has been. Yes, I'm just about to start a new Julian Fellows project called Belgravia, which I think will be coming out here next year. I'm also doing Grantchester, which is another PBS show. I'm doing The Last Kingdom for Netflix. Technically it's a costume drama. But the music couldn't be more different from Downton Abbey.

So, yeah.  I'm extremely busy.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.