Music and Social Change on Downton Abbey

By: Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX) //

The first episode of the hyper-popular BBC series Downton Abbey used the 1912 sinking of the Titanic as shorthand for the aristocratic Crawley family’s sudden and jarring transition, not only into a new epoch of its own dynasty, but from the waning and comfortable Edwardian era into a strange and destabilizing phase of world history. Now, as the show enters its sixth and final season (extending into the late 1920s), Downton’s inhabitants muddle clumsily through changing gender roles, shifting economic landscapes, volatile global politics, and seismic shifts in England’s essentially medieval class system, which is crumbling at last. In compressing such an expansive story into so few seasons, the show relies heavily on music to highlight the central tension between inevitable social change and the corresponding reluctance of the British aristocracy to adjust. Roughly speaking, the show’s diegetic music emphasizes the forward impetus of historical change, while the non-diegetic music looks wistfully back in time. The result is a Janus-faced soundtrack to accompany what creator and writer Sir Julian Fellowes has described as a Janus-faced storyline, gazing into the past and future at the same time.

While not strictly imitating late-Edwardian orchestral music, composer John Lunn’s score (i.e., the non-diegetic music) hazily alludes to it, particularly in the iconic manor house theme, which represents all that was considered timeless in England before World War I.

Downton Abbey opening scene; the “Manor house” theme

Although Lunn links the theme’s simple harmonies with contemporary pop music such as Coldplay, he also acknowledges the influence of English classical music from Downton’s time period. This influence comes through particularly in the echoes of English folk music heard in the theme’s plaintive contour, which combines stepwise motion with a few poignant leaps, and expands—somewhat unresolved—into the upper register. Lunn states that the manor theme “must have that sense of importance and power; [the house] must declare its ‘Britishness’ from the beginning … [with] a little bit of a sense of a lost world—the past is a different country; they do things different [sic] there.”

In declaring its “Britishness” and its ties to a “lost world,” the house theme aligns with the ethos articulated by the conservative English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in his 1934 National Music and Other Essays. In advocating for classical music animated by native folk materials, he stated, “Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of [them] can be found in [this kind of] music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music.” In addition to this generalized “atmosphere of peasant music,” Lunn’s score also evokes the flavor of nineteenth-century Romanticism via functional, tonal harmonic frameworks that include sparse but lush chromaticism; sweeping melodic phrases; and velvety strings and piano.

Further, Lunn’s score also codes “conservative” by avoiding the modernist experiments with atonality, serialism, expressionism, primitivism, and unorthodox instrumental and vocal sonorities that rocked the art music world in the period Downton portrays. In 1912, for example, London newspapers excoriated the music of “radical” composers such as Arnold Schoenberg. A September 4 review in the London Times of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces states “it was like a poem in Tibetan; not one single soul could possibly have understood it at a first hearing. … [T]here was not a single consonance from beginning to end.” On September 7, the London Daily Mail concurred: “Schoenberg evidently revels in the bizarre. … [His emotional life] must have been of a strange … unpleasant character. Is it really honest music or merely a pose? … If music at all, it is music of the future, and, we hope, of a distant one.” By almost totally avoiding the avant-garde sounds that generated this kind of critical discourse in the early twentieth century, the show’s non-diegetic music highlights the social and political retrenchment of the British aristocracy portrayed so colorfully on Downton

It is left, then, to the show’s diegetic music to move us forward into the twentieth century. It does so handily, with liberal use of the popular songs, dances, technology, and celebrities that thrilled English audiences in the years surrounding World War I. For example:

  • Season One: Servants dance the Grizzly Bear, a popular dance of the nineteen-teens, in the servants’ hall; a footman provides stride piano accompaniment.
  • Season Three: Shirley MacLaine (playing a wealthy American) sings “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a 1910 parlor song, at a Crawley family gathering.  
  • Season Four (set in 1922): Lady Rose, the most progressive member of the Crawley family, sneaks off with a ladies’ maid to a tearoom dance (considered an unsuitable, lower-class entertainment).
  • Season Four: Rose conducts a romantic relationship with a black nightclub singer Jack Ross, based loosely on the real-life cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson. Jack and his band perform early jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards in various settings.
  • Season Four: Kiri te Kanewa appears as fabled opera singer Dame Nellie Melba performing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Written in 1917–18, the opera would have been considered new and fashionable aria at the time.

Lady Rose enjoys a night of dancing at a tearoom in Season Four. Note the “Manor House” theme at the beginning of the scene.

These and other scattered examples of diegetic music often reflect real-life changes in British musical culture from 1912 to the late 1920s, especially related to repertoire and technology. In the late Edwardian era, waltzes and polkas, often performed by continental orchestras brought over by wealthy British gentry, played a prominent role in upper-class courtship rituals—eligible men would sign up for dances on a debutante’s dance card. According to research done in the archives of Highclere Castle, the manor house used in the filming of Downton, as late as 1911, Merier’s Viennese Orchestra performed twenty different dances at an enormous castle ball. By July 1923, however, guests at a Highclere house party gathered around the castle’s new gramophone to hear the latest American jazz bands, and jazz records heralded the birth of the estate’s heir in 1924. By 1920, there were almost eighty record companies in Great Britain putting out such discs, pointing to a massive change in the way people of all social classes experienced music, as well as the types of music they were consuming.1 Even the Downton episode with Kiri te Kanawa as Dame Nellie Melba, although it features opera, still captures a sense of the newly burgeoning cult of musical celebrity. 

One final poignant reference to English popular music culture—this one embedded in the show’s storyline—highlights the program’s central tension between the limited transformation and the partial retention of England’s longstanding class structure. In Season Four, audiences learn that Charles Carson, Downton’s crusty butler who cherishes old-school etiquette and fastidious class distinctions, performed vaudeville in the 1890s. The dignified Carson is terribly ashamed to have his underworld associations exposed, although other characters—regardless of social standing—react more with amusement than with pearl-clutching. Their reaction, along with Carson’s rise to the top of the servants’ ladder in the span of two decades, holds out the new century’s promise that old identities can be remade, quite a novel idea in Britain. However, Carson’s tale is a cinematic simplification, a nicety that obscures the fact that despite much alteration, England’s caste system and its corresponding identity markers did not magically disappear in the wake of World War I. Carson jumped from the dance hall to the head of the servants’ table, not to the House of Lords. Obviously there is still a ladder, with many rungs permanently inaccessible to certain classes. And in Britain, the stratification of musical styles according to class-shaped social values actually calcified as the twentieth century progressed. According to Richard Middleton and Peter Manuel,

“In Britain [H.R.] Haweis arranged the whole [musical] field into a moral-aesthetic ladder, with German symphonic music at the top and street entertainers at the foot (with ballads just above them) (from Music and Morals, 1871). … On a broader front, the drive by the new mass media, especially radio, to identify and supply a fully national market brought all the musical categories into the same socio-technological space and also, as a result, revealed their differences: the BBC, for example, ‘undertook the standardisation, classification and placing in rank order of the whole field of music’ (Scannell, 1981, p.259). By the 1920s the now familiar highbrow–middlebrow–lowbrow model was fully in place. … In Britain, the restructuring of BBC programming into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow channels after World War II marked its [the model’s] complete acceptance.”2

With its composite sound-world that looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, encompassing both the lowbrow and the highbrow, the music of Downton Abbey captures something of the complexities of early twentieth-century England, which welcomed change and clung to continuity all at the same time.

For Discussion

Choose a film and watch it, paying careful attention to all music you hear. Take notes about the use of diegetic music versus non-diegetic music. How do these two categories of film music intersect in this particular movie to support (or perhaps subvert) aspects of the film’s narratives, issues, plotlines, and character developments? Are there any instances when the director blurs the boundaries between these two categories of music? If so, what is the dramatic effect of those moments?

1 Richard Middleton and Peter Manuel, “Popular Music” in Grove Music Online/Oxford Music Online, updated and revised 13 Jan 2015.

2 Ibid.

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