John Lunn

John Lunn is the imposing two-time Emmy winning composer, lauded for his ability to musically illustrate depictions of bygone eras with romance, solace, and shades of modernity. He is the powerhouse behind a multitude of riveting television series and films including White Queen, White Princess, The Last Kingdom, Bleak House, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, Shetland, Little Dorrit, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, Jamestown, and Madame Bovary. John is perhaps best known for crafting the luxuriant and beguiling musical panorama unique to Downton Abbey, the critically acclaimed post-Edwardian period drama series. In honor of the long-awaited release of Downton Abbey: The Movie, John reveals how his iconic main title theme shaped the musical vernacular of Downton Abbey and his theory on the singular popularity of this phenomenon.

Source: Phil Watkins

Source: Phil Watkins

Prior to working on Downton Abbey, you scored a number of costume dramas and period pieces including Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Madame Bovary. Can you elaborate on how you attained expertise in writing original music for this category of programming?

Right. So, Madame Bovary was very early in my career. I really enjoyed working on it, and I think I did a really good job on it, but it was very French. It was set in 1830, so I was listening to a lot of [Maurice] Ravel and [Claude] Debussy, so there’s a real French flavor to that [score].

Then on Bleak House, I learned so much from that experience because the director, Justin Chadwick, wanted me to chart what was going on inside the character’s heads. For instance, Gillian Anderson [Lady Honoria Dedlock] had a big part in it but didn’t have a lot of dialogue. An awful lot was going on in her head, and the music had to say it all. In fact, she lived in a state of dread almost the entire way through the series, so it was my job to convey that. The music ended up being much more like a horror movie than what you’d expect in a costume drama.

It was a big moment when I suddenly realized, “Christ, this is what I should be doing. Music is all about what’s going on inside people’s heads. It’s about explaining what people are feeling.” I think on Madame Bovary I was doing that based on instinct without being conscious of it, but I really became aware of it when I did Bleak House. Ever since then, I’ve approached almost everything I’ve done completely different. 

[Bleak House] was a game-changer in many ways because up until that time, costume dramas had quite a lot of scenery. There was a lot of music to write for carriages riding through beautiful scenery, which was an implication that everything was rosy back in those days. And there was none of that in Bleak House.

For instance, in Downton Abbey, I don’t think it’s my job to make you feel as if you were in 1912. I’m not a part of the set — that’s what I like to say. I have to find a style of music that’s going to work — something that’s going to explain the relationships between the people and what they’re all thinking. Of course, Downton Abbey is much more of a conventional period drama than Bleak House. There are many instances of beautiful scenery, and there’s traveling, so Downton demands quite a lot of tunes. That approach worked for the show because it was edited with that kind of expectation. 

In the series, Downton Abbey relates the rich family history of a noble house as it is confronted with the erosion of social mores and hierarchies of times past. What were your methods to negotiate this evolution from time-honored tradition to the emergence of a new social order after World War I with music? Is your score influenced in any way by the fact that the Earl of Grantham’s spouse is American by birth?

Good question. Not really, no. I mean, I suppose the music is probably closer to Philip Glass than it is to [Ralph] Vaughan Williams and [Edward] Elgar. I’m a big Philip Glass fan, and there’s an element of that, but I’ve got more tunes going on. The music is very much about the relationships between people. I certainly wasn’t consciously trying to be American, or even English, nor early 20th century. It’s not really trying to do any of those, although you can’t ignore it. [laughs]

I mean, when we first started, I used a cor anglais, which, of course, means English horn, because it is kind of redolent of the English countryside, especially around that period. But as we went, I think by the time we went to season four, I changed that to a soprano saxophone. There were a couple of scenes where we got into the fashion, so I had to write some cues for both Lady Mary and Edith becoming more independent women. I found that I had to write slightly sexier music, and moved over to the soprano saxophone.

Downton Abbey enjoyed remarkable success as a nostalgic journey into the realm of the British aristocracy of a bygone era, and the feature film is a continuation of this. Taking place in 1927, the narrative centers around an anticipated royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary as the Great Depression looms. At the start of the film, fans are treated to an opulent musical trip down memory lane, reconnecting with many of the musical signatures you artfully arrayed for the series. What ideas felt necessary to revisit in this sequence?

Well, it was the executive director, Gareth Neame’s idea to have a greatest hits potpourri of Downton music to begin the movie. There is no dialogue for the first four and a half minutes, which was planned in advance, so it wasn’t a shock when I saw it. The idea was that we should hold off on the tune that everybody knows until we see the actual house, which is about three minutes in from the beginning. Of course, we couldn’t use all the hits because it had to work in the same tempo [as the theme]. Once you start that cue, you can’t really slow it down or speed up its current — it takes on its own life, really. Luckily, there were about three or four tunes and elements from the series that I could weave into that, which worked with the whole train station and going through the countryside. It came to me quite quickly. I was surprised myself because it only took me two or three days to write that first four and a half minute cue. 

To be honest, I was expecting it to be a lot harder. By this time last year, I started watching all six series again. It took me about three months to do it, but I decided to watch it all over again to remind myself of everything we’d done. It was actually a really good idea, and I jotted down some cues that I thought would be good — things we’d kind of forgotten about or weren’t developed as far as they possibly could be. There were also some things where I thought, “Hmm, let’s ditch that. You know, that could have been better.” There were a few moments like that, but it was really interesting revisiting everything. 

We did something like 1,500 cues for Downton and hardly ever used the same cue twice. We obviously used the same tunes, but it’s so carefully choreographed underneath the dialogue that taking one recording and plunking it in a different scene just never worked. You’re listening to the dialogue and the meaning behind each sentence, trying to reflect that emotion, so the cues always had to be re-written and re-recorded accordingly. Maybe we’d change the tempo slightly, or change where the accents went or how the dynamics grew at the end of a sentence or the end of a phrase. And then perhaps we’d change the way it takes you into another scene — it’s a very, very, very meticulous process. 

When the music, the pictures, and the dialogue are all working in harmony together, that’s when it’s at its best. You can’t really take one element over another, and that’s always what I’m looking for. I give the odd lecture now and again, and I’ll show people what it’s like without the music. I mean, it’s pretty good because the scenes are well-acted and well-written, but then you add the music and people go, “Oh, fuck.” It’s not that the meaning has changed; it’s just the depth of the meaning that really hits home. It’s magic, it really is. 

What emotional reactions were you intending to provoke from the fans who have been feverishly waiting since the series finale back in 2015? 

So, like everybody else who’s worked on it, I suppose I was just trying to get people back into Downton mode — you know, a bit of laughter, a bit of high emotion. For me, the only real difference was that we had a bigger orchestra. We had more money. We had a bit more time to write it, and we had a bit more time to record it, as well. Bigger, better, grander is what I call it.

At the film’s premiere in London, it was really exciting to hear that compendium of Downton tunes for the first three minutes. And there’s a bit where you’re following this mail van, and you think the scene’s coming down… And then suddenly, the house comes into view and you’re hit with the main tune. Everybody cheered! It was a great moment. 

A lot of the music is quite comic for the movie — much more comic than most of the TV series I’ve done. There are some great moments, like at the very end when [Tom] Branson and [Lucy] Smith are dancing on the balcony. Up until that moment, there’s just been this fantastic Strauss waltz that we had to record as part of the music. And then I had to metamorphose out of Strauss into Lunn two-thirds of the way through because the Strauss just wouldn’t work — it wasn’t sexy enough. Coming out of Johann Strauss seamlessly, so people were not so aware of it — that was actually quite hard to do. I think I’m probably most proud of that [Sunset Waltz] cue — that works really well.

Can you elaborate your musical approach to humor in the world of Downton Abbey?

Comedy’s totally about the timing, really. Funnily enough, I find comic music to be the hardest, and I find it a lot easier to make people cry. My take on comedy has usually been quite black humor oriented — minor key with a slight jauntiness and a bit of oddity to it. I might chuck in the odd wrong note. 

Certainly, in Downton, the humor’s quite black because I take the scenes seriously in a way, but then not. It’s kind of difficult to explain. To begin with, when I first went for an interview for the job, there was no mention of comic music. We didn’t think we were ever going to stray into that territory. In fact, I remember saying, “Music’s not that good at comedy. You know, don’t involve me in the comedy because it’s funny enough.” And then, of course, those words came back to haunt me. In the end, the music did get involved in the comedy quite a lot. 

Downton Abbey can be interpreted as an attempt to humanize and perhaps sentimentalize the British aristocracy for a diverse, global audience. In following the historical trajectory of the Crawley dynasty, we are made privy to their agonies and ecstasies in a rapidly transforming arena of privilege. These dynamics are set in relief against the trials and tribulations of their servants and retainers. What were the rewards and challenges of scoring this tumultuous yet vibrant age in motion?

I mean, it’s a bit like the writing. I didn’t see the servants or the lords and ladies any differently, and I didn’t treat them differently musically. If somebody was having a heartache or falling in love, I didn’t address their concerns more dramatically if they were upstairs or downstairs. I was trying to be equal and democratic. 

I feel like I treated Anna and Bates with the same equality as I did Matthew and Mary, for instance. Those are two love stories, and ok, they had different paths, but I didn’t see any difference between them in terms of emotions. That’s also just the way I think coming from a relatively working-class Scottish background. My mother was a teacher, not a maid, but I didn’t really have to think about that. It just felt natural to me. 

It simply wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without a reprise of your beloved, instantly recognizable main title theme. We understand that it was the first thing you composed for the series. Can you explain how this piece conditioned your subsequent melodic choices, instrumental configurations, and so forth in a general overarching sense?

In the very first episode of season one, there was no title sequence, and it started straight into the drama, but there was a train going through the English countryside. I, rather predictably, picked up the motion of the train, and then there was Bates, a middle-aged man looking out the window. You could tell he’s not had a particularly happy life up until that point, and he’s a bit apprehensive, so I picked out the solo piano tune. And then, as the train is going along, we cut to telegram polls with a telegram carrying the information that the heir to Downton Abbey had drowned on the Titanic. 

At this point, the audience doesn’t know any of this, and they don’t know who Bates is. So, then I brought in this big, rising string tune that had an emotional weight to it, and then we finally arrive. And there’s a beautiful shot of Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey itself, and the harmony broadens out in a way. 

So, you get the chugging, you’ve got the solo piano tune, and then interspersed, you have a rising string tune, and then this chordal sequence at the end, which is quite pompous. All those elements — all four of them — became an integral part of the whole series, in fact. And of course, I discovered that you could use them all together, or you could do things with just one of them or a couple of them. I suddenly realized that kind of modular way of working had a lot of value that could be developed.

Everybody just loved that piece of music. Later on, throughout episode one, we found different places to be able to use it, and it was becoming evident that it was quintessentially Downton Abbey. For episode two, they asked me to a 30-second version of that first cue, which I did, and then they put the title pictures to the music. It was quite unusual because it’s typically done the other way around. I am usually given the pictures and then asked to write a title sequence for them, but for Downton, it was the other way around.

I think the interesting thing is that if I’d been given the pictures that they put to the 30-second title, I’d probably have written something very different. I’m not saying the pictures aren’t good, they’re great, but when you start off with a dog’s bottom, a picture of the castle, and then you see people dusting chandeliers, there’s nothing that points to the range of emotions and drama you’re about to see because the music’s doing all that. 

In your view, to what extent does this reconstruction of an opulent past world inspire the voyeuristic impulses within your audience? To what do you ascribe the singular popularity of this phenomenon? 

Oh, that’s such a good question. Almost everybody’s got a near or close relative who has probably died recently that was part of that era. It is kind of like the era is within touching distance of us, unlike Charles Dickens or Jane Austen because we don’t have pictures from back then. Whereas 1912 to 1928, we’ve got pictures of that, and we possibly only recently lost a grandparent who lived through that era. 

Most costume dramas are based on novels, and people know how the story goes, even if they haven’t read them. With Downton, I think the fact that nobody really knows where the story is going to go, or even where it’s going to end, is quite intriguing. 

Beyond that, it must be a bit of nightmare being an executive because you’re putting all this money into something and then people might just hate it. In fact, I remember people said that about Downton while we were working on it, like “God, a story about an old country house in 2010? No, that’s never going to work.” I thought it would be successful when I was working on it. It looked really good, and the production values were very high. It was really well-acted, really well-written, really well-directed, particularly those first three episodes of the very first season. But I don’t think any of us had any idea it was going to become that massive, honestly.

We understand you will be ringing in the New Year in Luzern, Switzerland, performing the music of Downton Abbey with the 50-piece City Light Symphony under the direction of Alastair King. What goes into bringing this elaborate score to a live concert setting? 

You know, we did a massive one at Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is actually filmed. We did an outdoor one in June this year, and it was incredibly successful. There were about 6,000 people there. We had the first day of summer, and we were so lucky because it could have been a nightmare if the weather had been bad. Some of the music we’re just performing straight as a kind of concert piece. And then, for some of it, we’ve gone back and re-edited videos from seasons one through six to the music. I’ve written specific pieces, but they’re mainly pieces that have been taken from the three albums that we’ve done for the television series. We’ve re-edited, taken out a lot of the effects, and made them work with these pieces of music. That’s basically what we’re doing in Luzern.

In a couple of the scenes, we’ve left them exactly as they were. For instance, in series two, there is a fantastic sequence — a train station cue between Matthew and Mary. We perform that exactly the way it was composed with this scene, and there are a couple of other scenes we’re doing like that as well. In a way, we’ve almost created these kinds of pop videos, taking tracks from the album and putting together these compilations of bits and moments. Obviously, there’s a connection between the moments musically. For instance, we might take a track like “Two Sisters” and show a compilation of the relationship between Mary and Edith over all six seasons. There’s a bit of dialogue, but then there’s also great streams of where there’s no dialogue at all. So, it took us a while to edit, and it was really quite time-consuming. 

I’m going to be there playing the piano because I prefer to play the piano rather than conduct. My dear friend, Alastair [King] is an orchestrator and a conductor, whom I couldn’t live without. The two of us are going and taking our families with us, so it’s going to be fun. Jim Carter is going to be there as well. He will be compère for it, so he’ll take us through and tell some little inside stories about Downton, like how it was filmed and things like that. There is talk of us going to Japan in January, and then I’m hoping we’re going to tour the [United] States next year. 

If you could experience a full day in the shoes of any member of the Crawley family, who would you choose and what might you do?

Oh, God. I suppose I could see myself being Lord Grantham. Hugh Bonneville, he’s quite a good friend. We see each other quite a lot because we’re obviously working together, but I could see myself in that friendly, benevolent role. I’d like to think that my children see me in that vein, whether they do or not. [laughs]

I would definitely tour the grounds. I mean, to have grounds like that, I’d get up in the morning and probably go for a long, strenuous walk every day. The only problem with that role is that I do really enjoy cooking, and obviously, I’d be having other people cook for me. Maybe I could get used to that, but I’d gladly go down and help in the kitchen. Peel a couple of onions, you know? 

What would your thematic material sound like? 

Oh, you know, probably quite sweet… Hmm, I’m trying to imagine what my children would think of me. Kind but pompous. I don’t know, does that make any sense? God. I’m not really doing myself any favors. [laughs] A bit like Downton Abbey, really — sweeping, meaningful, important. 

Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular

Extending gratitude to John Lunn and White Bear PR.