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What nerdy musicians think about when they have loads of slack and don’t need to worry about keeping twenty-six hyperactive second graders mesmerized.

Consider yourself warned.

 The Downton Abbey theme was making me crazy.   It kept running through my head, and I was robotically thinking, “trains.”  After about the third episode of series two, it dawned on me that the little bell ringing in the opening credits was for summoning servants and not some kind of a train bell.  It’s the sort of slow logic process that happens when you’re in anesthetized TV mode.

But then, I’m thinking, “There are no trains in Downton, how can it be trains?  It’s not like Cranford, where the entire future of the town is affected by the intrusion of the railroad.  Except, of course, a train is often a metaphor for change, so…”

I was obsessed enough to find a copy of the Downton piano score and was reminded of the first movement of Samuel Barber’s Excursions.  I peered fastidiously at both, and yes, there were similarities involving E octaves over ostinato bass, syncopation, and other really picky things that you can’t possibly want to hear about.  The Barber two measure part nearest to the Downton  sounds like what you hear when a train passes through road crossing signals.  So, maybe I’m thinking “trains” because Downton rings up Excursions which is supposed to sound like trains.

Mind you, the Excursions movement is written in an American jazz boogie-woogie style, and the Downton theme appears to be contemporary minimalist.

If you got this far, give yourself a big pat on the back.  🙂

After having this mess with my head for several days I did a search for the composer of the Downton theme, John Lunn, and found a five minute interview where all is made clear.  To listen to the interview click here.  If you don’t feel like it, I’ll summarize what he said.  He wanted the Downton music to start off sounding like trains, because the first thing you see in the beginning is Bates riding on a train, and change is among the Downton themes.  He also tells why he used a modern composition technique for a period drama.

One musical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that if you want your composition to sound like a train, use an ostinato bass resonant of train wheels and some kind of syncopated whistle-like improvisational melody.  Also, maybe Lunn borrowed a little from Barber, maybe not, but composers do this kind of thing all the time.  It’s considered to be homage.  Oh, and run when a nerdy musician tries to engage you in conversation.  Don’t worry, we’re used to it.

Musicians who read this will probably disagree with me.  Musicians tend to disagree all the time.  I once almost went to fisticuffs with another nerdy musician over whether Kubrick was a plagiarist when he used Also sprach Zarathustra in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For those of you who have been living in a hut on a desert island this is the Downton theme:

For the rest of you, except possibly for piano majors, this is a recording of Excursions played by Vladimir Horowitz.  He only performs three of the four movements because when he debuted it in 1945, just I, II, and IV had been written: