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Classical 101

Downton Abbey Composer John Lunn On Why His Music Is Both So 'Then' and So 'Now'

color exterior photograph of Highclere Castle as "Downton Abbey"
Focus Films
Highclere Castle in the Downton Abbey film

The main theme of the hit television series Downton Abbey is as recognizable to the ear as Big Ben's iconic tower is to the eye, from its first pulsing eighth notes ticking away like the moments of a moribund way of life.

For six years, composer John Lunn's award-winning music for Downton Abbey transported millions of viewers to the fictitious noble estate. Now, Lunn's music weaves itself through the close-knit web of characters and plotlines in the Downton Abbey film, released worldwide  this month.

If you're familiar with the television series, then the film's soundtrack will take you back to the 1920s Yorkshire you likely feel you already know. In a recent phone interview, the composer told me he hoped that his music for the Downton Abbey would be the familiar guide that will "take you back into Downton."

But also as it did in the series, Lunn's music for the film will give you that sword-of-Damocles feeling, the sense that, even in Downton Abbey's rarified world of leisure and luxury, the other shoe is always about to drop. And if you watched the television series, then you know that sometimes that shoe is a doozey.

For all of Downton Abbey's unbridled Britishness, and for all that the series and the film, moreover, evoke Merry Old England at the peak of its imperial might, Lunn says he did not aim for the music for Downton Abbey to evoke a sound world that was particularly English or recognizably locked in the 1920s, the period in which the film is set.

John Lunn's iconic main theme for Downton Abbey:


"It's never really about the place or the time," Lunn said of his music for Downton Abbey. "It's much more about what's going on inside people's heads or how they're feeling or how they're reacting to other people or the relationships between them."   

Still, the lush string sound that predominates Lunn's Downton Abbey music comes directly from the rich tradition of string orchestra works that emerged across Europe in the late 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s – the same period that Downton Abbey portrays so well. Some of the finest examples of string works of this period were composed by English composers – Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, to name a few.

Lunn openly acknowledges a debt to this distinctly English repertoire in his music for Downton Abbey. But he also notes that, embedded in the overall string sound is a harmonic language more akin to that of pop music and jazz, a combination that explains why Lunn's music for Downton Abbey is both so then and so now – the music proclaims 1920s England in an accent of the early 2000s.

Listen to the audio file above to hear John Lunn talk about his approach to composing the music for the Downton Abbey television series and some of the tricky moments in scoring the Downton Abbey film.

Watch all six seasons of Downton Abbey now with WOSU Passport.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.