'Downton Abbey' Composer on the Show's Runaway Success, 'Happy' Future and Coldplay-Like Score (Q&A)

Emmy-nominated music maestro John Lunn talks to THR about the process of putting melody to picture and creating a masterpiece.

Rarely has a British series enraptured American TV viewers quite like Downton Abbey. The epic drama, set at a posh English estate in the early 20th century and chronicling the daily travails of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three daughters, marries regal presence with classic soap opera storylines against a stunning visual backdrop, whisking away fans’ imaginations to exotic, far-off lands and a forgotten time.

Accompanying all that familial melodrama? An equally gorgeous score that comes courtesy of composer John Lunn. The Scotland-born, MIT-educated music man is nominated for an Emmy (for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series) later this month -- not his first, but no less exciting, especially since it involves a change of scenery from dreary London to sunny Los Angeles.

But first, there’s unfinished business to tend to -- season three of Downton, for starters. Lunn spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about what to expect of the show’s future and his process of putting music to picture and creating a masterpiece.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you first started working on Downton Abbey, were you given a mandate on the type of score the creators had in mind?

John Lunn: The show starts off in 1912, but they didn't want the music to sound like music from 1912. In America, TV shows tend not to use real musicians. 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.

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THR: How many players do you use?

Lunn: 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. Because there's a lot of dialogue in Downton Abbey. I'd be foolish to ignore it and write music that doesn't take that into account. … I do everything to picture and never switch the dialogue off.

THR: What kind of emotions do you find yourself tapping into most often?

Lunn: It’s not so much about the characters themselves but the relationships between them. So the music works as a shorthand to help you understand what's happened in the past between those characters and where their relationship is moving. There's quite a few really important characters who have several themes associated with them -- Matthew and Mary, Anna and Bates: both those relationships have been up and down and you never quite know which way it's going to go so the music has to cover all those eventualities.

THR: Do you have a character that you love to write for?

Lunn: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). I think she's a fantastic actress. It's quite a difficult character to portray because she can be unsympathetic but you still care for her and I love writing music that kind of gets in her head.

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THR: The soundtrack has been incredibly popular, do you think it's opened people up to orchestral, maybe even classical music?

Lunn: I don't know. It's not really like classical music. I started out with elements of Philip Glass and I did listen to a lot of English, early 20th Century music … But the underlying harmony is actually very simple and perhaps almost a bit like pop music. You could imagine a Coldplay song, but because the instrumentation is a string orchestra and solo piano, you don't notice it like that.

THR: How did you come up with the theme for the opening title?

Lunn: In the very first episode on season one, there was no title music. So the very first cue starts off with Bates sitting on the train looking forlornly out the window. We don't know who he is, and we follow the train and the telegram which eventually leads us to a picture of the house, Downton Abbey. So I had to capture the energy of the train -- I had a solo piano tune for Bates looking out of the window and then there's a more elongated, rising melody that ends up with a grand chord sequence when you arrive at the house.

After I'd done that first cue, I think everybody was pretty happy with the way that we had started it off. And then when it came to the next cue, which happened about 30 seconds after with the house being woken up in the morning by the servants, getting the fires ready and preparing for the master and his family to have breakfast, the house itself is like a well-oiled machine -- a bit like the train, the energy. So the same kind of music seemed to work so well.


THR: Were you surprised by the show's success, especially in America?

Lunn: Yes. I thought it would be successful, but I didn't really expect it to be quite so popular, I must admit. I can see the reasons why now.

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THR: What are some of those reasons?

Lunn: People are obviously hankering back to a period that they possibly think was better than their own, although I'm not sure that it was. Also, most period dramas that take place more than 100 or 200 years ago, they're usually based on a novel and everybody kind of knows the story. In Downton Abbey, nobody really knows what's going to happen.

THR: The new season launches in 2013 -- how many more years do you see for Downton?

Lunn: We're certainly thinking of a series four and a series five. After that, we're not entirely sure what might happen.

THR: Anything you can tell us about what to expect on season three?

Lunn: There's probably more happiness -- more joyful moments in series three than there were in series two. The war is over and the world is changing. There's more pressure on the house because this idea of a manor is beginning to disappear. But I have to be careful what I say…

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin