The acting, the costumes, the wit, the banter -- people come to watch Downton Abbey (2010-2016) for many reasons, all valid, and none of which disappoint. Among the many of Downton Abbey’s now-iconic elements is its grand orchestrations set by Scottish composer John Lunn, a man in possession of two Emmy awards for his contributions to the series.
The music of Downton Abbey serves as the series’ first impression. As instant as the credit sequence begins, the vibrant strings and somber piano tonally give a sense of what Downton Abbey will be. From the rear of the family dog through the elegance and prosperity of an English estate, Lund’s music melts into the early happenings of the episode and glides us into the story. From there, his compositions do more than fill the background; they help drive and focus the narrative.
As a series with numerous characters and multiple plotlines, some of which span entire or multiple seasons, the music helps build an auditory bridge between them. The themes within the show become operatic leitmotifs, shorthand reminders of what’s going on with the Crawley family and their associates.
Take “Damaged,” for instance -- the theme song of John Bates (Brendan Coyle), the physically and psychologically handicapped valet to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). He’s a complicated man with various shades to his personality, a curious past, a subdued sense of self, a purely romantic hart, and a raging violent side. His theme, as Lunn explained in an interview with NPR, contains sort of a melodic “limp.”
For the first few seasons of the show’s run, much attention is given to the hot and cold relationship between Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Their theme, “Such Good Luck,” carries through several years of courtship and rejection, eventually affirming the relationship they toyed with for so long.
Further, Lund’s oeuvre cues the audience when to cry, when to be happy, and lets audiences know it’s okay to feel the way they do. Personal songs like “Two Sisters,” the late-series theme for Mary and feuding sister Edith (Laura Carmichael), and “Modern Love,” the frequently-used symbol of Mary’s conflicted and growing feelings about love in a post-Matthew world, cue specific emotional responses from the audience.
These orchestrations draw on our own experiences and allow us to relate to the characters. There is a universal commonality between the stories on Downton Abbey and our own lives. With the series, we’re just witnessing them in a new context. Few have lived a life as grand and privileged as the Crawleys, but everyone can relate to the things that happen to them: loss of loved ones, financial concerns, irksome familial relationships, adapting to changing times. While the world of Downton may seem immeasurably displaced from the way most live, the messages are the same, and that is the strength of the series. That is what Lunn’s music uses to connect us with these people.
Downton’s music is performed with a 35-piece orchestra, and Lunn himself on the piano, free of electronics or samples. It is composed with the authenticity one would expect of music from Downton’s time, every bit as tailored to the material as Dame Maggie Smith’s wardrobe, and does a beautiful job of weaving the plotlines and characters together across its many seasons.