Downton Abbey Theme Song: Meet the Composer

Composer John Lunn reveals the origins of the nostalgic “Downton Abbey” theme and teases “Downton Abbey: The Movie.”

The Downton Abbey theme song has won the hearts of millions around the world. It’s notes have a way of soothing the soul and creating a nostalgic yearning. However, unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, its origins aren’t a mystery. In this interview, composer John Lund says that he knew exactly when he had found the perfect sound for the Downton theme.

Who is John Lunn?

I studied music at Glasgow University but went in to Pop music after graduating and moved to London, UK. However I always harboured desires to be an avant garde classical composer and attempted to pursue both paths at the same time with varying degrees of success!

I spent 10 years in London writing and performing virtually every conceivable style of music and ended up working with several Contemporary Dance companies which eventually  led to my career in Film & TV.

What was the role of music in John Lunn’s youth?

My father had been a saxophone player in a jazz band so there was a lot of that music in the house as I was growing up. My mother was more classically minded so there was a good mixture.

I guess I was taking it all in as to this day my favourite composers are Miles Davis and Bach!

How did John Lunn get involved with Downton Abbey?

I had worked with the Executive Producer Gareth Neame on numerous shows before when he was at the BBC, on projects like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. When he moved to Carnival Films I continued to work with him so I was well known to the company. I think I was the first and only composer they asked.

John Lunn sits at a piano in the midst of the orchestra that recorded the Downton Abbey theme song.
Composer John Lunn sits at the piano while rehearsing with the Chamber Orchestra of London for the ‘Downton Abbey Live’ performance at Highclere Castle. Credit: Gareth Griffiths.

Was there an ‘Aha!’ moment when John Lunn knew he had found the Downton Abbey theme song?

It was my third attempt and I absolutely knew when I had it. It took me about three weeks to crack and it’s always the most nerve-racking period of any project. The blank sheet of paper still scares me!

It all came from the very first scene in episode 1. There was no actual title sequence. It started with a train powering through the English countryside and I went with the energy of it, then cut to a man, Bates, looking forlornly out of the carriage window and I picked out a lonely single note piano theme.

John Lunn’s theme song to “Downton Abbey” is one of the most notable television theme songs in the last several decades.

Then we follow the telegram wires which are carrying the information that the heir to Downton Abbey has been drowned on the Titanic, a more rising and emotional string theme enters and finally we arrive at magnificent shot of Downton Abbey itself and the harmony broadens out in magnificent splendour.

In the following scene we see the Maids and Valets preparing the house early in the morning and the same music also seemed to work, i.e., the house was like the train, a well-oiled machine.

We knew then that this music would be pivotal to the show and I was asked to write a 30 second version of it to use as a title sequence.

What does composer John Lunn hope that people feel when they listen to your Downton Abbey theme song? 

Well I always compose to the picture and always listen to the dialogue so I’m just trying to give people an honest representation of the range of emotions that they are about to witness and I think that theme tune does it pretty well.

When did John Lunn realize that his Downton Abbey theme song was a hit?

I think it was during the first Golden Globes or Emmy’s.

I was back in the UK. I wasn’t nominated for series 1, but stayed up pretty late to watch and we kept winning everything and they always played the theme tune to bring people on stage.

John Lunn takes a break from composing “Downton Abbey: The Movie” to pose for a picture. Credit: John Lunn.

When did John Lunn find out there was going to be a Downton Abbey movie? 

I was aware that the movie was a possibility since the end of series 6 and because I working on other projects for the same company was kept informed as to developments.

Still it wasn’t really till May last year that it was definitely on!

Was any of the music for the Downton Abbey movie filmed on set? How does that influence the music?

There are two places in the movie where we used music on set. The first is a club scene with a small jazz band. In fact, if you look closely you can see me playing the piano.

And the second one is a large ballroom scene where we used the music of Johann Strauss II. The latter was quite tricky as at one point I have to metamorphose seamlessly from the Strauss in to Lunn for a very particular reason which will become apparent when you see the movie!

Composer John Lunn sits at the piano while rehearsing with the Chamber Orchestra of London for the ‘Downton Abbey Live’ performance at Highclere Castle. Credit: Gareth Griffiths.

Introduce us to one or two Downton Abbey orchestra members that you feel deserve special recognition for their work on the film.

I have to thank my conductor and orchestrator, Alastair King, and my sound engineer and mixer, Paul Golding. They’re both so fantastically reliable and brilliant and always go the extra mile that I’m in danger of taking them for granted.

What is John Lunn’s favorite musical emotion—and favorite Downton Abbey character to compose for?

Sadly I like to make people cry so I suppose the more heartbreaking the better for me. I particularly enjoyed charting the love affairs of both Anna and Bates and Mary and Mathew.

Introduce the Downton Abbey movie. 

It has everything a fan would expect except it’s bigger, better, grander!

Why should moviegoers go see Downton Abbey: The Movie?

It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you cry. Plus, it’s the best way to hear my music in its full glory!

Further reading

Downton Abbey theme song resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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