Some of you may have noticed on the right column of this blog, there is a column titled “Top posts and pages,” and for the last couple of weeks, my post Music for Downton Abbey has been listed there. Downton Abbey “has become one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world,” according to Wikipedia. With this being the last and final season, people are looking for information about this beloved show.
I admit it, I’m a huge Downton Abbey fan. Even my late husband, Carl, was addicted and I’m so sorry that he is not watching Season 6 with me to find out what happened to all our favorite characters. [My favorite is Anna.] We didn’t start watching until Season 2 but were hooked immediately. At the end of last season, I bought and binge-watched DVDs of Seasons 1-5 so that I could more fully understand the beginnings of the story and plotlines. In Hawaii our local PBS station airs the previous week’s episode just prior to the current show (two hours’ worth of Downton Abbey), so if it’s Sunday night, you know where I am!
When the early music group, Hesperus, was here in Honolulu last week, and created a soundtrack for silent films, it reminded me that the music enhances the mood of what is happening on the screen. Most people don’t realize that the music can really draw you into the drama, heighten the thrill of action scenes, or make sad scenes even more poignant. As Tina Chancey wrote, “music can add pacing, drama, or irony, foreshadow tragedy or anticipate rescue.”
I did a little research and found out that the theme music of Downton Abbey was written by John Lunn. Born in Scotland in 1956, he is a prolific TV and film composer who was classically trained. In fact he has written several operas, with two being composed for the Glyndebourne festival. Another was written for the English National Opera. You can check out his personal website here. He received two Primetime Emmy Awards and another nomination in 2014.
In contrast to what Hesperus did using music of the period, the producers of Downton Abbey did not “want the music to sound like music from 1912,” according to an interview John Lunn did with The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. (Read the complete interview here.) And most importantly, they did not want to use synthesized music as is done in most American TV shows. Lunn says, “On Downton, all the music is played by real people — there are no samples and surprisingly little technology going on in the making of it. That’s one thing that I absolutely insisted on. I think to do music for a period drama would be really difficult if you have to rely on sample libraries and using programmers. The music sounds like a film so it kind of takes it away from being an ordinary TV show. It takes it to another place.”
And that it does.
Lunn continues, “We use a 35-piece string orchestra, a solo piano and the odd solo instrument like a French horn and that’s about it. One of the reasons for a string orchestra is that it sits well under dialogue. You can have quite a lot of underscore without swamping the dialogue.”
Here is an extended version of the theme song, as performed by the Chamber Orchestra of London. Just hearing this music brings on a mesmerizing, Pavlovian response in me — I immediately get goosebumps, or as we say in Hawaii, “chicken skin.”