Creating the series that has become a phemonon, PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” involves hours of painstaking work to pull just the right elements together. Now, an insider reveals what portion of the show came together with reveal ease and another that was just too painful to commit to.
John Lunn, who has worked as a Composer for over twenty years, has been using his unique skill in crafting the music of “Downton Abbey” since day one.
“I was onboard pretty early on,” explains Lunn. “I’d worked with Gareth Neame [the Executive Producer of ‘Downton’] on other shows and was very happy to have another chance to collaborate with him on this series.”
At the time, it didn’t exactly feel like an easy start for Lunn as he had to make a few adjustments in his process right away, but this definitely paid off in the end.
“I work directly to picture and there was no title sequence in that first episode. That title sequence would come a bit later,” Lunn reveals. He goes on to explain how he created the musical feel of the show and how it would influence the memorable opening credit sequence, saying, “In the first episode, the very shot is of a train and it has this energy that just keeps moving and moving. That’s where I got that repeating beat. Then it cuts to Bates and he looked like a man with an uncertain future so I brought in a piano solo and then we’re also following the telegram line which goes along the railway. A very important telegram is coming across those lines to the abbey. So, we follow the train and the telegraph up to the moment when the grandeur of the house is revealed and that’s when the harmony comes in.”
He goes on to say, “That was the very first piece I wrote for the show. Then, the very next cue was the house being woken up by the servants getting everything ready; lighting the fire, opening the curtains and all of those things. That was a bit like the same energy as the train. So the same theme worked. As soon as I had those two we knew we had it.”
Lunn laughs a bit when he thought back on that moment. “Actually that was all relatively painless. I’ve had much more difficult jobs than that.”
But then came the moment when the shots for the opening sequence were put together and Lunn was a bit nervous about how the music foundation he’d already created and were already established within the framework of the show would gel with this new sequence of onscreen images.
“I couldn’t believe it, but that was a moment where everything came together and I knew that we had something amazing in this show,” says Lunn.”It just looked and sounded so good, it was truly astonishing how it all fit together so well.
Lunn believes that the key role for the music on the show is to act as a sort of shorthand for viewers. “Because there are so many different stories and viewers are dipping in and out of the series, maybe they’ve missed an episode, the music is very much a clue as to what the situation is. It’s an essential part of storytelling.”
To craft his part of the story, Lunn explains that while other composers often use a particular theme for an individual, he likes to have relationship themes that are about the interaction between two people.
One of those themes was essential to the relationship that continued for three seasons between main characters Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley. “It was a theme that changed over time. It needed to keep changing because there was constant change with those characters. They were on, then they were off, and so on,” reveals Lunn.
Unfortunately, main character Matthew’s death at the end of season three meant a final curtain for many of Lunn’s compositions as well. “It was a bit of a problem with Matthew died, I mean, clearly for obvious reasons, but for my area of work it might the end of something that I was proud of. I had about 3 or 4 big tunes that I was really pleased with that will never be used again.” But Lunn reflects that dramatic turn in ther series, while heartbreaking, was clearly for the best. “There’s nothing more boring dramatically than a happy couple. So, in many ways it was good in the continuation of the storytelling on the show. Speaking again more about my area specifically, it would have been boring using those tunes over and over again. After Matthew’s death, the series turned a bit and the whole of the last season was about the rehabilitation of Mary recovering from that loss and for that, I created many new pieces to tell that story and I’m very happy with those.”
Lunn wants to be clear that while themes are established, music cues are never used twice. “Every single cue is specifically created and cut to fit with the dialogue in each scene. There’s no library of recordings that we pull from. The shape and the contour of the music and the way that it sits under the dialogue takes the viewer into, through the scene and then into the next scene. A lot of people use a library, but we don’t do that.”
Having about two to three weeks to score an episode, Lunn does a mock up using a computer to show how he plans to proceed with the episode. Then he consults with Neame, during which time the two discuss, possibly argue a bit, but always end up with an mutually agreed upon design after which Lunn works with 35 musicians to complete the score for that installment.
For his work, Lunn has taken home two consecutive Emmy awards, a feat that he says is still a bit shocking to him.
“It really feels like quite an achievement, but I really have to say that there was a time a few years ago when I just never thought it would happen. I was nominated for my work on the series ‘Little Dorrit,’ and that show won loads of awards that year and I didn’t win and I was so disappointed. I clearly remember thinking, ‘Well, there goes my chance of ever winning an Emmy.’ I feel a bit ashamed to have thought that way when a mere five years later it’s now happened twice.”
This year, Lunn has chosen the Christmas Special episode of “Downton Abbey” to submit for Emmy consideration. While the episode aired in the United States in February, it aired on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom. The episode featured the birth of Lady Mary and Matthew’s son, George, as well as Matthew’s death shortly after the birth.
While many viewers were outraged at the timing of the episode, a lot of fans may not be aware that those working the behind the scenes were so concerned about the impact of Matthew’s death on the audience that a few changes to the final edit were made at the last minute to maintain the integrity of the story but possibly lessen the blow. Lunn was directly involved in one of those decisions. “The very last scene is on Mary’s face when she’s cradling her newborn son, still blissfully unaware of what has happened to Matthew,” explains Lunn. “When I played my original cue, which we’d already agreed upon in an early session, Gareth said that the music was just too tragic for Christmas Day. There were a lot of conversations about it. We agreed that the storyline was tragic enough and we didn’t need to heap misery on the audience. The problem was I’d already recorded the piece, so I’d have to gather everyone and record a new piece. But even though that was a bit of a pain, it was definitely the right change to make. Also, I think it’s really important to note here that this type of decision-making isn’t something that’s unique to this one episode, that’s always the goal – for the music to actively participate in the story, to help the viewer feel what they’re going to feel, no undermine their emotions or overpower them, to find just the proper balance. If that’s accomplished that I’ve done my job, we’ve all done our job here.”
Lunn will begin work on the fifth season of “Downton Abbey” shortly and he could pick up a third Emmy award for his work on the show in the fall. Nominations will be announced Thursday, July 10th.
For more information about “Downton Abbey,” please visit the show’s website here.