NPR logo

'Downton Abbey' Composer Explains Theme Choices

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/464961007/464961008" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Downton Abbey' Composer Explains Theme Choices

Television

'Downton Abbey' Composer Explains Theme Choices

'Downton Abbey' Composer Explains Theme Choices

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/464961007/464961008" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For six seasons, the elegant, orchestral tone of the beloved TV series has been set by Scottish composer John Lunn, who has won two Primetime Emmys for the show's music.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The days dwindle for the folks of "Downton Abbey," both upstairs and downstairs. The hit British TV show is counting down its final season. There have been so many marriages, deaths, secret births and intrigue over the past six years. And as Tim Greiving reports, accompanying it all has been the music of John Lunn.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: What would "Downton Abbey" be without John Lunn's music? Just ask Mrs. Patmore.

LESLEY NICOL: Well, I mean, you can only look better when he's got his hands on it.

GREIVING: Lesley Nicol, who plays the house's tetchy cook, says the music matches the show's subtle emotions as well as its grand photography.

NICOL: From the very beginning when I heard that theme tune, you know, I just fell in love with it because it's beautiful. I mean, it's properly clever music.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG, "DOWNTON ABBEY - THE SUITE")

GREIVING: John Lunn says this piece of music, the one that releases a flood of endorphins that tell your brain it's time for some gorgeously wardrobed scheming and delicious repartee, was never actually meant to be the main theme of "Downton Abbey."

JOHN LUNN: In series one, there was no main title in the first episode. They just started with a telegram and then we cut to a train and so I kind of had...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

LUNN: You know, this being the train.

GREIVING: Lunn sits at a keyboard inside his London flat, which was converted from an old spice mill near Tower Bridge. He has a modern film composer setup - a fully-loaded computer, multiple keyboards and giant speakers.

LUNN: And then it cuts to a guy alone in a train looking sort of forlornly out of the window. And so the train kept going...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

LUNN: ...And then I got this sort of single piano tune that picked out this guy. It's quite lonely.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG, "DOWNTON ABBEY - THE SUITE")

LUNN: I mean, the best theme tunes do give you a rough idea of what you're about to see.

GREIVING: While Lunn's bread and butter has been composing for British period dramas, his background is in both classical and electronic music. The Scottish native studied music in Glasgow and at MIT. He's written three operas, a violin concerto and this piece for voice and orchestra based on a poem by Charles Baudelaire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE VOYAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in French).

GREIVING: John Lunn has pretty much left the classical world behind.

LUNN: I don't what it is about classical music, but the composers are always seen as this kind of sort of god, you know, and the musicians are all kind of underneath you and have to bow to you. And it's quite a lonely place. Whereas in modern day now, you're very much part of a team. You know, I have my own team. I have, you know, an orchestrator. I have somebody who mixes the music for me. They're all very equal.

GREIVING: Everything in "Downton Abbey" is recorded with a 35-piece orchestra, with Lunn playing the piano himself.

LUNN: There's no electronics. There's no samples. It's like a large sort of chamber orchestra. You could almost imagine it could be fitted into their house itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG)

GREIVING: Lunn wagers he probably wrote 50 different themes for the show, little melodies that function like leitmotifs in opera.

LUNN: You know, there are multiple storylines going on that sometimes the storylines can go through several series, not just one. And so, I kind of use the music as a sort of shorthand of reminding people of what's going on.

GREIVING: Like theme he wrote for Bates, the damaged manservant.

LUNN: He had this limp. And I felt, you know, sort of sorry for him. He'd been in a Boer war, and he looked like he'd been both physically and psychologically damaged. And I came up with a - it's a bit of a limp, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG, "DAMAGED")

GREIVING: Or several tunes for the will-they-won't-they couple, Matthew and Mary.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG)

GREIVING: Lunn says when Matthew died at the end of season three...

LUNN: He took all my best tunes to the grave with him, actually (laughter).

GREIVING: He admits he was often concerned about tipping things into the maudlin. To avoid that, he made sure the emotions in the music started somewhere personal.

LUNN: If I'm wanting the audience to cry at some point - if that hasn't happened to me in the process of trying to make that piece of music, if it hasn't happened at least once, I can't expect the audience to go for it either. It has to happen to me.

GREIVING: "Downton Abbey's" success has led to an unexpected market for Lunn's music. He's just released the second of two albums of selections from the show. He's performed the music in concert in Europe and is toying with performing in old stately mansions here in the U.S. But as popular as "Downton" has been for Lunn, he admits this music isn't really him.

LUNN: It's not music I'd do if I was left to my own devices. I'd be writing much harder, rhythmic electronica.

GREIVING: Too bad the show's not following the Crawley family into 2016.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN SONG, "DOWNTON ABBEY - THE SUITE")

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.