Home > Reviews > DOWNTON ABBEY – John Lunn


September 17, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For those who have been living under a rock for a decade, Downton Abbey is a British drama series charting the lives and loves of the aristocratic Crawley family and their various staff and servants, all of whom reside in the titular estate in northern England in the 1910s. It’s a blend of domestic drama, historical and political intrigue, and scandalous romance, dressed up with upper-class British pageantry, and it was wildly popular and successful both domestically and in the United States, where fascination with the royal family and the landed gentry remains as popular as ever. In combination with Harry Potter it re-kindled the late-blooming career of Dame Maggie Smith, and made household names of character actors like Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, and Joanne Froggatt, all of whom were nominated for a ton of Emmys, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes between them. This new film, which is being released four years after the series ended, is set in 1927 and focuses on the activities in and around the Abbey as they prepare for a visit from King George V and his wife, Queen Mary of Teck.

Another successful aspect of the series was it’s music, written by Scottish composer John Lunn. Lunn has been a stalwart of prestigious British television since the 1990s, and has written music for some of the most acclaimed and memorable shows of the last thirty years, but Downton is by far his most well-known work outside the UK. He has been nominated for a combined eight Emmys and BAFTAs for his work, winning for Downton in both 2012 and 2013, and of course he is returning to score the movie – which could put him in line for an Oscar nomination next year, depending on how the Academy handles the eligibility of a movie score adapted from a television score. The reason I say this is because, by and large, the music for Downton Abbey has been spectacularly good, and the score for the movie is no exception. Lunn is a master at creating that instantly recognizable BBC English costume drama sound, which takes the musical seeds of composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but dispenses with the adornments and presents simple, effective, emotional cues that instantly evoke a specific time and place.

It’s written for a large chamber orchestra highlighting strings, cor anglais, French horn, and of course the piano performed by Lunn himself. The famous main theme is present in abundance, but fans will also be delighted to know that many of the less well-known motifs from the show are also featured, including the slightly downcast theme for the valet/batman Bates, and the refined theme that epitomizes the character of the head butler Carson. Lunn says he probably wrote 50 different themes for the show, little melodies that function like leitmotifs in opera, but some of them are so fleeting as to be almost unrecognizable by anyone who isn’t acquainted with the show and its score at its most intimate and detailed. Several new themes are introduced in this score too, most notably a new motif representing King George and Queen Mary themselves, and a sprightly and mischievous motif that represents the rivalry that develops between the Downton staff and the traveling members of the royal household.

Of course, the centerpiece of the score is the main theme, and it gets a wonderful workout in the opening cue, “A Royal Command,” which mimics the opening shot of the first episode of the TV series by tracking the journey of an envelope from London to Downton by train. Lunn begins with a sentimental solo piano version of the main theme – we have been away for five years, after all – but gradually builds it into something more proud and grand, sweeping and spacious, featuring some gorgeous orchestral textures. The chugging string undercurrent is intended to capture the sound of the movement of a train, while the explosion of the full main theme at 2:56 is just glorious. Several other cues feature the main theme strongly; in “Gleam and Sparkle” Lunn offsets it with pretty, elegant piano and harp textures that glisten brightly under the strings, while later in “You Are the Best of Me” Lunn imbues numerous subtle allusions to the Downton theme with more poignancy, heartfelt sentiment, and a slight hint of regret, before building to a deeply moving finale with a prominent cello countermelody.

One of the most impressive things Lunn does is how he takes the core set of orchestrations and continually makes them shine. Many of the mid-album cues take pains to spotlight a particular instrumental texture, reference a particular thematic idea, or bring to the fore a specific emotion, without ever straying too far from the established sound of the pieces. It’s impressive, how he does so much with such a strict palette; I especially love the sense of movement and urgency and the slightly downbeat cor anglais writing in “Pillar of the Establishment,” the lush patriotic-sounding waltz for elegant and dashing strings in “God Is a Monarchist,” and the unusually phrased string motif that runs throughout “Honour Restored,” before eventually emerging into a fulsome and glorious string waltz interspersed with mischievous woodwind phrases. Later, “Not Entirely a Bad Night” uses dark string chords and develops a thrusting forward motion from an energetic piano undercurrent, before becoming more emotional in its conclusion, prettiness tinged with regret., while “May I” features hesitant, but deliciously romantic oboe writing.

Both “Two Households” and “Sabotage” feature what appears to be a new motif depicting the petty rivalry that develops between the below-stairs staff at Downton Abbey and the household of the King and Queen, who arrive before the royal couple and begin to throw their weight – and prejudices – around. The music for this concept is sprightly, a festival of flurries in the strings, with lots of pizzicato and tremolo, mischievous interjections from celesta and glockenspiel sounds, and dancing playful pianos which are lighthearted but mask a little bit of genuine rivalry. Fans will be delighted to hear a guest appearance of Carson’s theme at 2:19 in “Sabotage,” for when Lady Mary implores her beloved former butler to come back to Downton one last time.

Another interesting cue is “Incident at a Parade,” which is the closest thing the score comes to having an action cue, and underscores the scene where a mysterious stranger causes a serious commotion as the royals arrive in Downton village. Here Lunn makes use of much more intense rhythmic ideas, with strident strings and dense piano clusters which are quite dramatic. The cue ends with a massive new brass theme, regal and majestic, full of pomp and circumstance, as the King and Queen safely make it to their destination. Another new theme I noticed appears in “Maud,” an elegant but slightly bittersweet theme for piano and strings, which is intended to evoke the new character of Lady Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton), who is Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, and Lord Robert’s cousin.

There are two pieces of outstanding source music. “Never Seen Anything Like It” is a wonderfully authentic-sounding piece of period jazz, languid and toe-tapping, while the “Sunset Waltz” is gloriously opulent, rich and classical. It’s unbelievable that this is a new composition written in 2019 and not a piece from Strauss’s 1860s Viennese repertoire. The conclusive cue, “One Hundred Years of Downton,” underscores the film’s final scene where Carson and his wife Mrs. Hughes, Downton’s head housekeeper, discuss the future of the Abbey and muse on whether it will be standing in a hundred years, and whether the Crawley family will still be living in it. It’s a sumptuous dénouement, rich and classical, with strong and noticeable performances of both Carson’s theme and the main Downton theme that end the score on a high note.

Anyone who is familiar with, and likes, the music of Downton Abbey will feel exactly the same about the movie score. The reprises of the main themes are like welcoming back old friends, while the new themes associated with the King royal party simply add to the excellence of the existing repertoire. Lunn’s orchestrations are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, evoking that intangible sound of ‘English classicism’ to a tee, and as I mentioned earlier the mileage he gets out of his comparatively limited instrumental palette is impressive. Finally, the emotional range allows the listener to immerse themselves fully in the world of Downton, from the politics and social issues concerning the Crawleys, to the less worldly but no less important dramas in the kitchens and sculleries below stairs. Put on your morning suit, pour yourself a cup of tea or a large brandy, break out the cucumber sandwiches, and let the nostalgic sounds of post-Edwardian England wash over you.

Buy the Downton Abbey soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Royal Command (4:49)
  • Pillar of the Establishment (1:48)
  • Gleam and Sparkle (2:48)
  • God Is a Monarchist (3:02)
  • Two Households (5:00)
  • Incident at a Parade (2:27)
  • Sabotage (3:33)
  • Maude (1:28)
  • Honour Restored (2:39)
  • Never Seen Anything Like It (2:27)
  • Not Entirely a Bad Night (2:59)
  • May I? (3:08)
  • Taking Leave (2:26)
  • Resolution (2:15)
  • You Are the Best of Me (2:44)
  • Sunset Waltz (3:51)
  • One Hundred Years of Downton (5:13)

Running Time: 53 minutes 17 seconds

Decca Records/Universal Music (2019)

Music composed by John Lunn. Conducted by Alastair King. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by John Lunn and Alastair King. Recorded and mixed by Paul Golding. Edited by Mark Willsher. Album produced by John Lunn.

  1. Fábio Scrivano
    September 17, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Hello Jonathan. “Sunset Waltz” is, in fact, a Strauss Jr. composition. But its real name is “Voices of Spring”. Surprising and disappointing that he isn’t credited.

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