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9 September 2019, 13:34 | Updated: 9 September 2019, 13:36
John Lunn, the composer behind the elegant Downton Abbey TV theme, tells Classic FM why his English countryside-inspired music has more in common with Coldplay than Elgar.
We met composer John Lunn at Abbey Road Studios, during a break for the recording session of the new Downton Abbey movie soundtrack (watch exclusive rehearsal footage below).
Among other things, we asked him about the inspiration behind his beloved Downton Abbey theme.
“For Downton, I listened a lot to Elgar and Vaughan Williams,” Lunn says. “But in the end, it wasn’t that useful, because the music is too overwrought, and it needs to be much simpler for storytelling.
“In fact, if you analyse the harmony of the Downton Abbey theme, it’s much more like a Coldplay song, except it’s performed in a classical sort of manner. It’s much closer to pop music.”
Lunn also gave us a tantalising insight into his music for the Downton Abbey film, which is coming out next week (13 September).
Read more: Downton Abbey movie: soundtrack, UK release date, cast and trailer >
How did you come up with the ‘Downton Abbey’ theme?
“It was actually the first cue I ever wrote for the TV series. When the series first started, there wasn’t even a title on episode one. It just started with a train going through the English countryside, and then there was a man looking a bit forlorn out of a train window, there were falling telegram wires.
“And I wrote that music for that scene – and eventually the camera reveals a fantastic shot of Downton Abbey itself and the music just opened out.
“So it came from the very first scene that we filmed and in fact, it was the first thing I ever wrote. Everybody loved it, and then as we worked through that episode, that theme kept on coming up and it became obvious that would become the central theme of the whole series.”
Read more: Downton Abbey theme >
How does the theme evoke the sound of Downton?
“The music’s really quite sweeping, romantic and epic – and the pictures of the titles themselves don’t really do that. It’s much more like feather dusters and chandeliers. And if I’d been presented with those pictures for the titles, I’d probably have written something completely different.
“It was partly budget. I thought I needed a big string section and we didn’t have that much money for any extra instruments. I did the piano myself, and we used a cor anglais and French horn as well. But actually, that sort of chamber feel started to work very well for the series. So, we stuck with it.
“For the movie, it’s all a bit bigger – but we haven’t really expanded it that much.”
What can we expect from the movie soundtrack?
“We haven’t thrown the baby out of the bath water. Fans will not be disappointed. The main themes we’ve used throughout the six series are all there.
“Obviously, there are some new character and new storylines, so there are a few new themes in there. But generally, everybody will recognise it as the good old Downton theme.”
What can we expect from the movie itself?
“Again, I think like the music, fans of the show will not be disappointed. All the main characters are there, it’s still that same blend of humour and love and tragedy.
“It’s following on from the TV series, on a grander scale.”
How important is it that a live orchestra plays the Downton theme?
“I mean, synthetic sounds just wouldn’t work for Downton Abbey. For other things I do, I use a lot of electronics. So, I’ve got nothing against that.
“But this kind of music needs to be by real players. I’m playing the piano myself, so there’s nothing fake about it at all.”
What are the challenges of composing for TV?
“The hardest thing is creating material that you know is going to last throughout [the series]. It has to be readily identifiable and original, and really particular to that show. So, episode one is always really critical.”
How important is music in a period drama?
“It’s massively important. But it’s not really my job to make people feel like they’re in 1820 or 1830. Something like The Last Kingdom, which is set in the ninth century, nobody knows what the music was like anyway. So, it would be pointless to try and recreate the sound of that.
“What I’m doing is more getting inside people’s heads and describing what they’re feeling to people watching. It’s storytelling, not creating the set.”
Downton Abbey is out in UK cinemas on 13 September, and US cinemas on 20 September 2019.