Period Departure Captures “Downton Abbey” Score

Cannes Film Festival

John Lunn

Composer John Lunn didn’t turn to the music of the early 1900s when preparing to score "Downton Abbey."  He decided instead to focus more on the musical style of pop.

"The harmonies in the music of the 1920s wouldn’t work with ‘Downton Abbey,’" said Lunn.  "The harmony (written for the series) is simple, almost like pop music, but crunched into the 1920s opulence.  The strings and piano provide grandeur."

Lunn has been composing music for TV series and specials for over twenty years.  Residing in the UK, he found the projects generated by the BBC to be more lucrative both financially and on a creative scope than much of the feature work he is generally offered.  Additionally, he enjoys the fact that the BBC allows for real musicians to record the score, and that the finished production has global distribution.  While many of the series he’s worked on have been period pieces, he is mindful of the projects he accepts, trying to avoid being pigeonholed as a period composer.  Although "Downton Abbey" is set in the early 1900s, Lunn saw some exciting opportunities with the series.

"Most other period dramas are based on a book, so you know exactly where the story is headed," said Lunn.  "Downton is original, so things can change.  I knew the editor and enjoy working together, so I knew this would be a good thing to do."

Lunn found inspiration for creating the score during the first season from the opening sequence.  The shot began with Bates riding on a train, on his way to the house.  Lunn saw the train as a device that was pivotal in relaying news that would shake the comfortable aristocracy.  He also saw a correlation between the mechanics of the train and the livelihood of the servants who are crucial to the ongoing saga of Downton; their efficiency and teamwork reminded him of the complexity of a train’s gears.  Lunn’s application of this inspiration began with notes from a piano, then a grand, sweeping melody was added.  From here, the harmony of the piece branched out to a chord sequence that established the main theme of the series.

Typically, Lunn has six month’s lead time with the overall story line (although elements of season four and five are already being discussed.)  This advanced knowledge of the direction certain plot points will take allows him to develop themes for specific characters and situations, allowing him to create cues that enhance the emotional response.  One example of this would be the theme that accompanies Lady Mary and Matthew’s screen time.  The couple has a roller coaster relationship; the theme is bright and upbeat expressing the joy of togetherness, but can be darkened, capturing feelings of longing and despair. 

"You get the feeling they belong together.  The same music, when she said goodbye when he went to war, used with a variation, worked for his proposal," said Lunn.  "I knew at the beginning of the season that it would end that way.  In a series, you always have to leave yourself somewhere to go."

Sometimes, preparing the score also involves well placed silences.  In the Christmas episode of season two, several characters had died, one character was facing a potential death sentence, and the aftermath of the war was continuously being explored.   It was a deliberate decision to use the silence to affect the story and the viewer.  Additionally, Lunn refrained from introducing any holiday themes until the very end of the episode when the mood had shifted and new beginnings were in sight for all the characters.

There are some themes that are maintained through a series, such as the music used for Lady Mary and Matthew, however not all music is appropriate to carry from season to season.  Much of the music Lunn crafted for season two related to specific occasions and story threads such as the continuation of World War One and these pieces will no longer be relevant.  As the third season begins the characters will be moving into the roaring twenties, and Lunn is contemplating introducing some jazz into the score.  Until he determines its effect on the tone and the feel of the episodes, he won’t commit to its use.   

Generally, Lunn feels most directors and producers don’t have the musical background to express ideas regarding the score, allowing him a great deal of artistic freedom.  He does work more closely with the editors and occasionally will be asked to write some music they can specifically use to edit to.

While Lunn has written musicals and operas in the past, his schedule keeps him rather occupied at the tasks at hand.  This year he received his second Emmy nomination for his work on season two of "Downton Abbey," and he is thrilled to be recognized by his peers.  He is looking forward to connecting with many of them at this year’s Creative Arts Emmys.

"Being nominated is like icing on the cake," said Lunn.  "I always like visiting Los Angeles.  The Emmy party is a lot of fun.  Americans do know how to party!"