January 09, 2015

Catching up with Downton Abbey Composer John Lunn

By Simon Greenaway and Etan Rosenbloom

John Lunn<br>Photo by Phil Watkins

John Lunn
Photo by Phil Watkins

Over the past four seasons, TV audiences have fallen in love with the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at the heart of British period drama Downton Abbey. Essential to the show's success is John Lunn's stately score, which helps navigate the intertwining relationships with grace. Lunn's earned two Emmys for his music for the series. Just ahead of the season 5 premiere, we caught up with Lunn about how he and his music have changed along with the Crawleys. 

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With Downton Abbey now in its fifth season, has your approach to writing the music changed much?

Not really, but each series, in fact every episode, always requires several new musical ideas to deal with new story strands. I enjoy the opportunity to develop my material even if it's over a long period of time.

Has the success of Downton Abbey allowed you to try more adventurous, or bigger, things with the music?

I think the expectations are higher, and I'm now more aware of the importance of how a musical idea will permeate throughout a series. There are always two or three moments in each episode where the music is allowed to take over, and I like to take advantage of that.

Do you still "spot" the music for each episode or do you just get director's notes sent to you?

I spot every episode with the executive producers Gareth Neame and Liz Truebridge. Only very occasionally is the director allowed a look in on the music. The idea is that we've been working on it since the very beginning, and we know more than anyone how the music works in the series.

Many of your themes are based around characters, or relationships between characters. Can you give an example of how those themes evolve from season to season?

I tend to think of them more as relationships between characters, definitely. In series 1 episode 1, I used an idea for Bates and Anna that started with a slightly off-kilter, repeated solo piano figure that sympathized with his disability with his leg, and a solo viola line that represented her loneliness. That whole musical strand has stayed with them throughout all five series, including prison, marriage, rape, endless obstacles. It has a feeling of never fully resolving, a little like their relationship.

This is a show where words and dialogue take center stage. What is it like working with and around so many words? Is it important to you that the rhythm of the dialogue is reflected in your score?

I always compose to picture and I never mute the dialogue. The words are hugely important, and I never use the same cue twice for that very reason. The music is very carefully choreographed.

It’s a period drama, but you don’t stick with music we would have heard in the early 1900s. What’s behind that choice? Are there any concessions you make to the music of that period?

My job is to help with the storytelling, not to conjure up the period in which it is set, though I can't completely ignore it. Very occasionally we need the feeling of "Englishness" or indeed "Scottishness" for a scene and only then do I make a concession.

Downton Abbey anchors its subplots with big events from history - the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of WWI, the formation of the Irish Free State, etc. Do you treat these real events any differently than the fictional events surrounding them?

Not really. Only the outbreak of WWI required a musical idea, but even then it was within the context of how it affected the Crawley family.

In season 3, there was a time jump of six months after the Matthew Crawley character dies. How do you deal with the idea of time passing with your score?

That was tricky. Initially I thought that Matthew had taken some of my best tunes with him to the grave, but actually since most of series 4 was about the rehabilitation of Lady Mary, I used the ghost of some of these melodies to gradually disappear or reappear over time to help track her state of mind.

Five seasons in, are there still new challenges that Downton Abbey presents you as a composer?

Like the series itself, the feeling of giving the audience what they like about the show while trying to keep it fresh.

How important was music education in Scotland when you were growing up? Has it remained important to you?

Hugely important. Without Stirling High School or the University of Glasgow I would not be able to do what I do now, and some of my teachers were hugely influential and supportive.

What other exciting projects do you have coming up in 2015?

Well I'm just starting The Last Kingdom, a large eight-part series about England in the 8th century for BBC America, then series 6 of Downton followed by series 2 of Grantchester.

You’re a member of PRS but ASCAP licenses your music in the US. Can you talk a bit about the role that ASCAP has played in your music career?

Besides the very professional approach to collecting royalties, I feel I have benefited hugely from both ASCAP's recognition and public relations. The fact they have such an active presence in the UK itself is also extremely useful.

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Downton Abbey, season 5, airs Sundays from January 4th to March 1st, 2015 on MASTERPIECE on PBS. Find out more at http://bit.ly/DowntonAbbey-S5-ASCAP

About John Lunn
John Lunn’s music possesses a wonderfully unique voice that spans a wide spectrum of musical styles. Classically trained, yet contemporary in attitude, he combines a highly intelligent and sensitive approach with a sound that always hits at the emotional heart of a piece. His scores, which match the highest production values with a continual desire to discover new colors and sounds, are continuously in high demand. He is probably best known for scoring the hugely successful flagship ITV/Carnival Films drama, Downton Abbey, for which he has received two Primetime Emmy Awards, in 2012 and 2013 and a further nomination in 2014.
        
John’s recent work includes ITV/PBS/Lovely Day’s adaption of The Grantchester Mysteries by author James Runcie, Red Planet’s epic WWI drama The Passing Bells, Burton and Taylor (starring Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter), Shetland, The White Queen (based on the bestselling novel by Phillipa Gregory), for which he also received a Primetime Emmy nomination in 2014, and the reimagining of Hitchcock’s classic The Lady Vanishes, all for the BBC.