Composer John Lunn Eases the Pain with Downton Abbey: The Ultimate Collection
Two-time Emmy winning composer John Lunn has scored some of the best TV shows in Britain (Shetland, Last Kingdom, Grantchester, White Queen, The Walking Dead, Bleak House and Little Dorritt) but is best known for his work on the evocative, immersive and emotionally charged score and themes for Downton Abbey.
From the opening titles and that distinctive piano piece, to character studies of Lady Mary, to narrative pieces, the music is a huge part of the pleasure the series has brought us these past six seasons. Lunn’s pieces move us through the storylines throughout the series.
We spoke with Lunn just after the US / Canadian series finale.
Downton Abbey is a phenomenon; it’s taken hold so powerfully that people build their Sunday nights in Canada and the US around it. Fans are devastated that it’s ending. How are you coping?
Amazingly it hasn’t really dawned
on me yet! Around May I think it will probably affect me most as that’s when I would normally be starting work on it. To be honest it hasn’t really ended, I’m still doing loads of interviews for the new soundtrack album.
Places like Japan are only on series 2, I’m in discussion about a possible Live Tour and there is continued talk of a movie. The TV series is definitely over but Downton lives on!
The opening titles of Downton Abbey, the dog walking, the feather duster, those piano notes … always signify so much pleasure. It’s an emotional cue that says sit back and enjoy.
Thanks. That music was originally for the first scene in the very first series. After I had written it I was pretty confident I was on the right track! It’s just been voted the UK’s favourite theme tune ever so I’m very proud of it. I think it does a good job of describing the series and setting up certain expectations.
Do you go to the sets of shows you’re scoring?
What do you rely upon as a starting point?
Very rarely. On series 2, 3 and 4 I did get involved in any music which was on screen, I played piano for Shirley MacLaine and Michelle Dockery and I supervised the Jazz Club scenes. In series 5 & 6 I delegated it to an assistant.
I always work to the picture. The music is virtually the last thing that goes on and it’s very carefully choreographed under the dialogue. I’m just responding to what I see and hear and translate the mood or emotion in to music.
How do you know if you want to score a film or show?
I usually read the script before I accept any job; I’m usually looking for something original or something which might be a challenge.
When do you hear the music?
I’m always involved in the recording of the music and occasionally I might go and hear the final mix with all the dialogue and FX.
How did you come up that many Downton variations including the character pieces? Was it challenging? What was most helpful?
It wasn’t that difficult. I could see when I wrote the original that there were many different ways to present the material. My biggest problemthough is eventually I find the absolutely perfect version and then I can’t do it any other way! But that usually takes several series to work through.
Your influence on audiences is profound. You’ve scored some of my favourite shows and your sound is unique. I was watching a show and realized you’d done the music so I think your style of recognisable.
Thank you. Funny though I’m really not sure what makes my sound unique. It’s something I do quite naturally plus I don’t think I’ve ever tried to emulate any other composers. There are some I am influenced by for sure but it’s usually an isolated element rather than an overall sound.
The double CD features the music of all six seasons, in 31 pieces, some vocal, that take us through the stories in order. So how many times have you seen the show in order to create that musical map?
Every time I’ve started on a new series I always watch the previous one just to remind myself where I ended up musically. Was there something I missed that could have been explored etc. and although I might not remember which episode contained which scene I’m pretty familiar with the whole story arc of all 6 series.
So on behalf of Downton fans everywhere, thank you. And what now?
Well I’ve just finished series 2 of Grantchester, there’s another series of The Last Kingdom, also The White Queen and I’m doing a new series for NBC/Sky called Jamestown about early British settlers in America. Thank you so muchit’s been an absolute pleasure.
John Lunn’s ‘Downton Abbey: The Ultimate Collection’ is a 2 disc album now available internationally via Decca Records and digitally on iTunes.