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January 18, 2016
Downton Abbey: The Ultimate Collection
John Lunn's Emmy-winning music released in 2-CD set by Jon Burlingame

HIGHCLERE CASTLE, Berkshire, England—The rise and fall of those urgent strings and that determined piano say it all: another installment of Downton Abbey is beginning.

John Lunn's music for writer Julian Fellowes' addictive period drama of Yorkshire aristocrats and their servants has won two Emmys and been nominated for a third. And now that the production is in its final season on PBS's Sunday-night showcase Masterpiece, Decca has thoughtfully released a 2-CD collection of music from all six seasons.

For Downton fans worldwide, it's a wonderfully nostalgic trip: bustling music for the servants preparing the hall for another day; romantic strains for Lady Mary and her beloved Matthew; alternately worried and hopeful themes for bad-luck couple Anna and Bates; impassioned music for Lady Edith, separated from her daughter; exciting passages for the fox hunts, and much more.

Lunn estimates that he has written approximately 60 themes for characters, locales and situations while musically chronicling the ups and downs of the Crawley family and their faithful butlers, cooks, housekeepers, valets and maids. "Nobody knew how big this was going to be," Lunn says by phone from London. "I was very pleased with what I'd done on Series One. Then when it came to Series Two, we'd gone into a war, and I was worried that the material wasn't going to work. But it was still Downton, and even though the war had its effect, it didn't change all that much. The music evolved slowly over the six series.

"There have been some disasters," Lunn admits. "Matthew took some of my best tunes to the grave with him," he quips, referring to the unexpected death of Mary's husband at the end of Series Three. And while the production charts the course of English history from 1912 to 1926, Lunn made no attempt to reflect the period in his music; rather, he says, it's about the characters, their relationships and their feelings.

Lunn's musical palette hasn't changed since the beginning: a large string section and piano, often supplemented with English horn, soprano saxophone or French horn. Alistair King conducts the musicians, usually about 35 per session. Each episode contains an average of 15 minutes of music, and Lunn has, for the past six years, set aside several months in the summer and early fall to score the episodes (which air in England from September to December).

Sometimes, he has musically portrayed the locale, as in the Scottish flavors of "Duneagle" or the swinging jazz clubs of London during Rose's dalliance with Jack Ross. Always, Lunn says, musical decisions have been made in consultation with executive producer Gareth Neame.

The Glasgow-born composer has worked steadily in British television for more than 20 years, including many productions familiar to American viewers: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The White Queen and Grantchester. But Downton Abbey has been the longest he's ever been associated with a single cast of characters, he says.

And his music for Downton has become, by far, his best known. "Every time there's a mention of the House of Lords on television, they wheel out the Downton Abbey theme," he says with a laugh. "It's become the symbol of the upper class."

Downton Abbey: The Ultimate Collection is the third release from Decca, following the original Downton CD (music from Series One) and Downton Abbey: The Essential Collection (which added music from Series Two). For the most part, the first CD is drawn from key moments in Series One, Two and Three; the second CD, from Series Four, Five and Six. In addition to the instrumental cues, three songs spice up the set: "Did I Make the Most of Loving You," based on the main theme; "I'll Count the Days," based on a Mary-and-Matthew theme; and "Nothing Will Be Easy," based on a Mary theme from Series Four. Oscar winner Don Black (Born Free) penned the lyrics.

Asked about the future of Downton, Lunn says "it wouldn't surprise me if there is another Christmas special" at some point, and maybe even a movie. He also hints that there may be a U.S. concert tour of Downton music, perhaps featuring some of the cast, later this year. Lunn would play piano, as he has from the very beginning of the series in 2010. "It's become a massive part of the branding" of the series, he concedes.

For now, Lunn is completing a second series of the Viking saga The Last Kingdom and a second of the 1950s detective drama Grantchester. "It will be interesting to see what happens now that six months of the year is not taken up with Downton," he says.

©2016 Jon Burlingame
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