Downton Abbey

The official Tumblr for Downton Abbey, Carnival Films / Masterpiece costume drama, written & created by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes. Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter and more.

Composing for an ever-changing series.

Guest post by John Lunn, the Emmy Award winning composer of the theme and soundtrack music for Downton Abbey.

When a TV series starts out nobody really has any idea how long it will run for or how it will evolve. With Series 1 of Downton Abbey I think I had the scripts for the first four episodes so I had a rough idea of the developing story lines. In the possibility that it might be successful, Julian Fellowes had written what’s known in the industry as a ‘Bible’ which is basically a sketch of ideas that might be explored were a second or even a third series to be commissioned. So while working on Series 1, we knew that Series 2 would involve the First World War, but that was about it.

Writing music for such a series does require a certain amount of flexibility. Each thematic strand must stand out and be distinctive, but ideally each one must be able to transform itself into another. There are always a few constants - the House, the Crawleys, although even they change, and the Masters and Servants; but the development of the music is about the relationships between people.
Inevitably the title music is associated with the house itself but it didn’t start out that way. In a previous blog, I described how the music was originally composed from the very beginning of the first series - the train, the telegram, the lone man - and how the same music also fitted the subsequent scene where the servants are seen bringing the house to life early in the morning. There’s an underlying harmonic movement and several distinctive themes that I knew would lend themselves to further development. And that proved to be the case - the material is still extremely useful even now after four series, but sometimes I have to admit I’m relying more on instinct than design.

For example the music that became associated with Sybil and Branson actually started out as a theme for her maid, Gwen, who didn’t want to spend her life in servitude and trained herself to become a secretary. Sybil was very sympathetic and decided to help her. The music began to encompass Sybil as well as the concept of emancipation and then finally developed into a love theme between her and Branson. Even now in Series 4, long after the death of Sybil, it is used to conjure up the ghost of her as she continues to haunt Branson.
Likewise, after the death of Matthew, who unfortunately has taken most of my best tunes with him to the grave, I have been able to use distant strands of those melodies to help establish the gradual emerging of Lady Mary from her grief, by allowing them to disappear and finally metamorphose into an entirely new melody unassociated with him.

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