New Classical Tracks: The Music of "Downton Abbey"

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
February 26, 2013
LISTEN

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Scottish composer John Lunn studied at Glasgow University before heading to MIT in Boston where he studied computers in the early 1980's. He's been writing top quality television and film music for the past 20 years, yet Lunn says he's most recognized for what he's been doing most recently. "If somebody says to me, what do you? Well I write music for TV and you mention Downton Abbey, virtually everywhere you go in the world, everybody knows exactly what you're talking about. Oh! You do Downton Abbey. That's quite a thing, I think."

If you're a fan, you're probably mourning the conclusion of season three of this Emmy-award winning PBS period drama. Never fear, John Lunn says filming for season four is already underway and there are wonderful story lines developing for assistant cook, Daisy; Edith, the middle Grantham daughter; and for under-butler Thomas Barrow. In the meantime, you can enjoy the music of this Emmy-award winning composer which appears on Downton Abbey: The Essential Collection.

You might think composing TV music would become routine or tiresome. John Lunn couldn't disagree more. "For me, half my year is taken up doing it. And actually it's a very happy project to work on — I've got to know quite a few of the cast which is also unusual for me. I hardly ever get on set but I've sort of taken over responsibility for the music even when it's in vision. For instance I worked with Shirley MacLaine — she had to sing a song in episode one. I'm playing the piano in fact, although you don't see me — unfortunately I hit the cutting room floor. But I am very, very involved in it."

The cinematic quality of this series is one reason it's so appealing. John Lunn says he totally relies on those visual images while writing the music. "I write the music to picture. I never actually try and compose without looking at the picture. I never switch the dialog off. Dialog is hugely important. Actually, if you watch Downton Abbey, there are very few places where there's not dialog. So I have to be very careful and the music is very carefully manipulated around the dialog."

As you listen to the music on Downton Abbey: The Essential Collection, you'll quickly recognize themes tied to each of your favorite characters.

"Nothing to Forgive is the music that was used when Matthew goes down on his knee to propose to Mary at the end of series 2," Lunn explains. "And in fact it's very similar to music to a scene where they say goodbye to each other on the train station. And of course they're not together, but the music was meant to give the audience a feeling of how stupid they were not realizing that they ought to be together."

Lunn says there are also several themes for Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham's valet, "Damaged has sort of slightly off-kilter repeated piano, it's a very hesitant piano. He walks in a funny way and the repetitive, sort of hesitant piano thing came out of that feeling, because the first cue ever I had to write for Bates was about walking with a walking stick. So it has this very sort of hesitant feel but there's a kind of Celtic plaintive quality to it. And Story of My Life is pretty much kind of a conventional, romantic love theme, really."

Then there's the main theme, which Lunn composed for the very first episode. "There are basically four elements to that tune," he says, "There's a train, there's a solo piano, there's a big romantic tune and then there's the stately chords that come out when you arrive at the house. The other interesting thing was that the very next cue was about the house waking up and being woken up by the servants. And in some ways the house was a bit like the train — it was like a well-oiled machine itself, and so exactly the same kind of music actually worked for the next scene. Then I really knew that this was the kind of music which was going to work for Downton Abbey."

It seems pretty much everything about Downton Abbey really works. John Lunn explains why. "Well, I think there always has been a thirst for period drama," he muses. "But normally it's always based on a book — like Pride and Prejudice. Most people have read Pride and Prejudice, they know how the story is going to go. And I think that's a great thing about Downton Abbey — you don't really know the twists and turns. I think people have just become embroiled in those lives, and they have identified with some of the people in it and their predicament. They want to know how their life works out, I think — I think that's the key to it."

On Now

Listen to the Stream
  • Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave) 12:00 Felix Mendelssohn
    Vienna Philharmonic
    Christoph von Dohnanyi
    Buy Now
  • Goldberg Variations: Aria 11:54 Johann Sebastian Bach
    Jeremy Denk, piano
    Buy Now
Playlist
Other MPR Radio Streams
Choral Stream
MPR News
Radio Heartland

You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.