'Downton Abbey' Composer: 'If I Haven't Felt Moved, Then I Haven't Done My Job'
Composer John Lunn didn’t start writing music for films and television programs until he was 32. Two decades after he began that journey, American audiences fell in love with the Crawleys – and Lunn’s memorable themes – from “Downton Abbey,” the ITV/PBS program that follows an aristocratic family through the first decades of the 20th century.
The show ended its six-season run in 2016, but now a new film reunites the cast, writer Julian Fellowes, and Lunn, who says the “Downton Abbey” film contains some of those familiar themes that viewers love, but there’s also “probably at least 50 percent new music” in the film.
The churning, piano-driven title music to the series (partly inspired by the soundtracks of Philip Glass, according to Lunn) doesn’t appear until several minutes into the movie, but there is plenty of music to set the scene. In fact, Lunn says the opening of the film contains no dialogue whatsoever.
“I must admit I was a bit surprised by the four and a half minute length [of the opening] but it looks fantastic, that first four and a half minutes… and you can see why. Although there's no dialogue, the music is still giving you a lot of information about what's about to happen.” Finally, viewers get that view of Highclere Castle, and…
“I think I've seen it in the cinema three times, and each time that's happened, the audience all clapped and cheered!” Lunn says.
Lunn explains that in writing music for “Downton,” he looks to the relationships between characters on film, and that he has to feel something himself when he’s writing.
“I'm not one of those composers that divorces the music from the film. I'm very much looking at the screen and understanding the story and trying to make the experience for the viewer greater than the sum of its parts,” Lunn explains, adding that he knows that if he himself gets emotionally involved in the story with the music, he knows the job’s been done right.
On his own time, Lunn says he couldn’t live without the music of Bach, Ravel, Debussy, Duke Ellington, and popular musicians like Sly & the Family Stone, and Joni Mitchell. He has a particular passion for Miles Davis, especially Davis’ music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the trumpeter went electric and created dense, explosive music with sidemen like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and bass player Michael Henderson.
Asked what advice he has for young composers hoping to break into film and TV scoring, Lunn goes back to his own philosophy of writing for the screen. “Students have to be really flexible… [and] you’ve got to serve the movie. It’s everything, the pictures and the dialogue are absolutely everything.”
“Downtown Abbey” is now playing in theaters everywhere. The complete film score is available on Decca Records.