CD Review: Downton Abbey

Welcome to the world of DOWTON ABBEY withdrawal. If you have yet to succumb to the pleasures of this superb PBS miniseries, I suggest you do so posthaste.

I have three friends, whose opinions I respect, who urged me to watch the show over and over again. As my brain cells disintegrate with age and my TV attention span shrinks further and further away from the 21-minute sitcom limit, the thought of devoting hours to what I saw as a stuffy, glorified UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS just didn’t appeal to me. I’m an idiot. Ten minutes into the first episode of Season One of this superb series, I was hooked. Now that I’m a confirmed ABBEY novitiate—monastic and devoted, prostrating myself at the foot of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess—I’m detoxing until the arrival of Season Three in 2013. Until then, the soundtrack of John Lunn‘s excellent score will hold me over.

Lunn’s music bypasses the expected period throwback to pre-war styles. Instead, the music has a contemporary yet timeless feel to it, if there is such a thing. Because of the episodic nature and length of the series, the album cannot play like a traditional soundtrack from beginning to end. Still, all the musical highlights, primarily from Season One, are here.

The album begins with a tight 7-minute suite of many of the themes, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The main theme, which begins every episode, is highlighted by a straightforward quarter-note melody in the piano and violins soaring over seesawing lower-string triplets, setting the stage for the drama to unfold.

Downton Abbey – Telegram
Click Track: Telegram

“Love and the Hunter” sets the music in a muscular three-quarter time for Lady Mary’s brash attempts to find a husband, while the sobbing strings and oboe in “An Ideal Marriage” ironically wed her to her fate. The soaring strings of “Such Good Luck” give voice to her repressed feelings for Cousin Matthew. In “Emancipation,” Lady Sybil’s furtive machinations to help housemaid Gwen find a job as a secretary are embodied by pizzicato strings underscoring a plaintive English horn solo.

The standout theme in the score is the yearning string cue, “Story of My Life,” which underscores the unspoken love between valet Mr. Bates and head housemaid Anna. The melody and harmonies are stepwise in their movements and the cue, which rarely varies throughout the series, is simple in its structure. But it is this simplicity that gives the cue its heartbreaking power.

Downton Abbey – Story of My Life
Click Track: Story of My Life

Lunn deconstructs the main theme throughout the score, utilizing simple three-, four- and five-note motifs to create unity and give the character of Downton an overriding presence, even when the action takes place elsewhere. Piano plays a large role in the score, subtly giving the music an emotional connection not only to the characters but to the character of Downton itself. Though much of the harmonies are dark (though not heavy), cues such as the lilting waltz of “Us and Them” and “A Drive” lighten the proceedings.

The album is rounded out by two period vocal songs—”If You Were the Only Girl in the World” and “Roses of Picardy”—that may seem out of place among the instrumentals. But these are entirely appropriate (and even sung in the show) as examples of the type of salon music performed in homes such as Downton in the days prior to the advent of radio. The album closes with a vocal rendition—”Did I Make the Most of Loving You”—of the score’s main theme.

Since Season Two features a richly textured musical landscape that builds on Season One, I hope there are plans for a Season Two CD in the works. In the meantime, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Shirley MacLaine to lock verbal horns with Maggie Smith in Season Three. For those who have not fallen under the spell of DOWNTON, the soundtrack album may seem nothing more than some lovely film music. For the rest of us, it is an aural reminder of beloved characters that touched our hearts.

3 comments

  1. I, too, have become beguiled by/ addicted to this exceptional, genteel drama ( I suppose one could say it is a genteel “soap opera, ” given some of the events that unfold).. The score is one of the most elegant for a television presentation since Geoffrey Burgon’s music for Brideshead Revisited.

  2. I was blown away by the score for this series from the very start of it. I don’t have this CD – yet – but I’m very much looking forward to getting it!

  3. The show is superb…one of the best TV series on air today, and puts many network shows to shame. The soundtrack is not a traditional soundtrack, and in many ways is more like British light music. However, the score is refreshing, and hopefully, there will be a follow-up recording with more music from season 2 and the upcoming season 3. Overall, this show blends the best of a period drama, great acting, and most importantly high-quality music.

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