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Composer John Lunn

Every so often the theme that colors the opening credits of a television series works its way into the collective consciousness. Digging all the way back, Peter Rugolo’s music for “The Fugitive,” Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66,” and a bit later, Bill Conti’s “Dynasty” show theme all made that kind of lasting impression.

We all have our favorites from this musical category, and certainly, countless film and television fans would include the music John Lunn wrote to accompany the opening credits of the fabulously successful British series Downton Abbey. It might surprise some that this insistent music, which features a mournful theme in 4/4 against a stolid accompaniment in 3/4, wasn’t originally written as the opening theme.

In fact, Lunn says, the opening theme had no music written specifically for it. The music that came to be associated with it was, however, the first cue that he composed.

“There was a train running through that cue, and the music was meant to convey the insistent energy of that train,” he says. “The next shot was of a telegram, while the train was still passing through the English countryside. The harmony broadened out when the magnificent shot of the house appears.”

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, says Lunn, that the music he had written would be used in the title sequence. He wrote a 30-second cue based on that music, which the editor cut to, and voila. It never would have happened if Lunn had been asked to score the opening scene as it came to be.

Lunn has straddled multiple musical styles for decades. The 60-year-old composer attended Glasgow University to study 12-tone techniques, which were considered avant garde at the time. “I was very into John Cage and other American composers like Milton Babbit,” he says. “Ligeti was a big influence, as well.”

At the same time, Lunn was playing bass and keyboards in Man Jumping, a band whose members were inspired by the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. A huge Miles Davis fan, Lunn was particularly enamored of Bitches Brew when he moved to London in the mid-1980s.

After taking a short course in computer music at MIT, Lunn spent a few years putting together a computer-based compositional system—in the days when those who couldn’t afford a Synclavier or Fairlight were mostly on their own. In the late 1980s Lunn picked up a computer and a copy of Cubase. “I moved over to Logic 15 years ago, but I keep thinking about going back to Cubase!” he exclaims.

He ended up playing piano and double bass, conducting, and writing cues for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and the Rambert Dance Company. “The story lines tended to be obscure and abstract,” he recalls, “but there was always a narrative. I enjoyed the idea of taking a narrative and exploring it musically.” It proved a good training ground.

No one associated with Downton Abbey had any idea the show would grab the imagination of the British public the way it did, or prove so attractive to the millions in the States. Given his success, Lunn was in the fortunate position of being hired to compose the music without competing through demos. “I had worked with Gareth Neame, the main show runner, in the past,”