Capturing the Castle

by Luke Taylor
April 10, 2012

Listen Downton Abbey - The Suite (Excerpt)
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'Downton Abbey' is a television drama set at an English country estate. Its ensemble cast includes Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Siobhan Finneran and Brendan Coyle. (2011 Nick Briggs/ITV for MASTERPIECE)
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John Lunn doesn't appear on camera in Downton Abbey, but he's evident in countless scenes. "I'm manipulating what's going on quite a lot underneath the dialogue," Lunn says. "I'm always trying to look at a way of putting something else in there that, without it, you'd view the scene differently."

Lunn is the composer of all the original music for Downton Abbey, the hit period drama produced by Carnival Films and broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece in the United States.

Lunn's work has featured in dozens of productions, including such TV programs as Hamish Macbeth, Bleak House, Criminal Justice and Little Dorrit. He's worked on feature films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. This month, Lunn's music can be heard in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, also airing on Masterpiece.

'A Good Tunesmith'

Fans experiencing what Classical MPR's Brian Newhouse calls "Downton Abbey withdrawal" will be happy to know the next season is in production, and Lunn is already hard at work. "The great thing about working on another [season] is you don't begin with a blank canvas," Lunn says. "You've already got a framework."

When the program began, Executive Producer Gareth Neame recommended Lunn to the rest of the Downton Abbey production team. "One of the key requirements is being a good tunesmith," Neame says. "John just constantly surprises me and just constantly comes up with one great tune after another."

A musical omnivore, Lunn studied classical as well as avant-garde music at the University of Glasgow and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He went on to be bassist, keyboardist and composer for seminal electro-funk band Man Jumping, where his work was noticed by the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Soon Lunn began composing music for dance productions. "Once you start writing music that has a dramatic flavor or storytelling idiom like dance, it was easy to move from there into television," Lunn says.

The breadth of Lunn's musical experience serves him well. "He's certainly my favorite composer," Neame says. "I've worked with John more than anyone else, and I find him to be extremely diverse. He can score absolutely any type of project. He's truly versatile and so collaborative."

Music Inspired by Images

When writing music for television, Lunn insists one thing is critical. "The only way I can do it is to watch the picture," he says. "The picture is everything."

Lunn got the idea for Downton Abbey's opening theme while watching the first two scenes of the very first episode: The program opens with a train barreling down a track; the next scene shows Downton servants preparing the house as morning dawns. Lunn first wrote music that captured the energy of the train, then realized it worked just as well in the scene of the house coming to life. "The house is like a well-oiled machine," Lunn explains, "and part of the drama is when it isn't a well-oiled machine. It became obvious after those two cues that this was going to be the kind of material which was going to work for the whole series."

The opening music ends with a third inversion on a 7th chord, which Lunn feels has a grandeur that gives the house its own theme. He acknowledges the chord is a surprising one to end on, but the entire piece showcases Lunn's broad influences, ranging from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar to Philip Glass.

Beyond the opening, Lunn writes music for relationships between key characters. He's written romantic themes for Matthew and Mary and for Anna and Bates. Lunn has also created music to accompany the furtive plotting of Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien. "That's the hardest stuff to write," Lunn chuckles. "It's much easier to write a love tune than sneaky music!"

Inside the Production

The music is performed and recorded by the Chamber Orchestra of London, an agglomeration of musicians hand-picked from such prestigious ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra for Downton Abbey consists of 33 strings — 10 first violins, eight second violins, six violas, six cellos, three basses — plus a cor anglais, a French horn, a vibraphone and John Lunn himself on piano.

Lunn records the piano parts after the orchestra, but not because he's conducting. "I need to actually be in the control booth listening to the dialogue [from the show] and the orchestra at the same time," Lunn explains. "It's the only way to tell if the music is working."

Occasionally, Lunn goes on set at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the shooting location for much of Downton Abbey. In series two, when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) perform "If You Were the Only Girl in the World" for a roomful of soldiers, Lunn is playing piano out of frame while Carmichael mimes along. Lunn has already been on set for season three, again playing piano and coaching a cast member who sings a song. "More often than not, the composer never meets the actors or the people at the front end of the production," Neame observes. "I think they're very enthusiastic about John's music and therefore like having him on set whenever there is a musical sequence."

Filming of the third season of Downton Abbey concludes in August. It will air on ITV in the U.K. in September and on Masterpiece in the U.S. in January 2013.

Until then, does Lunn have any idea what happens to Mr. Bates?

"I don't, actually!" he admits with a laugh. "But I've got a suspicion."