The Music of Downton Abbey

Riding the wave of a popular cultural phenomenon has enabled the Oratorio Society of Minnesota to unearth previously unperformed music and attract new audiences.

Downton Abbey fans impatiently awaiting the return of the Dowager Countess of Grantham and her famous bon mots on PBS in January can enjoy a tasty appetizer when the Oratorio Society of Minnesota presents "Christmas at Downton Abbey" on December 13, 2014 in A Downton Abbey ChristmasMinneapolis.

Featuring choral and orchestral music from post-Edwardian England paired with narration about memorable events from the story line of the popular British show, the concert is the second in the Oratorio Society's series of highly successful Downton-themed performances. It is expected to sell out the 800-seat St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Catching a wave

Matthew Mehaffey, the Oratorio Society of Minnesota’s artistic director and conductor, concocted the idea for the themed concerts while binge-watching episodes of Downton Abbey with his wife. “She liked the music of the show, and I really liked English choral music of that time,” Mehaffey says. “So I proposed it to my board, and they thought it was a cool idea.”

The first concert in March 2014 was so popular that the chorus added a second show. The key to its success, Mehaffey says, was attaching the programming to popular culture. “I really have a desire to make great music accessible to the average person,” says Mehaffey, an associate professor of music who also directs the choirs at the University of Minnesota. “So, through the lens of Downton Abbey, we had 1,500 people come, whereas if I had just programmed post-Edwardian music, we would have had 200 people there.”


Ticket sales for the two concerts equaled nearly 80 percent of the chorus’s annual ticket budget. “For a small chorus, that was an incredible financial boon,” Mehaffey says. “And we got so many new names and contact information that we oversold our next concert in the season as well. We’re hoping that this is a gamechanger for our organization.”

Mining for gems

In picking the repertoire for "The Music of Downton Abbey," Mehaffey worked closely with David Fielding, a member of the chorus and a self-described “musical archeologist.” “There is so much music being lost faster than we know,” Fielding says. “My mission is to resurrect it. It’s not fair to the choral community to have these masterworks sitting in libraries.”

For the first Downton program, Fielding unearthed period choral pieces that had never been performed-—“Nightfall” by Patrick Hadley and “Crossing the Bar” by Benjamin Dale—and another—“Beloved, let us love one another” by Sir Sydney H. Nicholson—that had never been performed in the U.S.

Audience members getting pictures taken in front of a Downtown Abbey backdrop borrowed from the local PBS television station.

Mehaffey created a storyline of the big events of Downton Abbey over the first three seasons and Ken Meter, a chorus member, wrote a script for the character of Lady Alice, Duchess of Kirkwood (played by actress Marsha Smith), a fictitious member of the Grantham family and frequent guest at Downton Abbey. “She spoke between the musical selections and tied historical facts about the music selected to actual events in the Downton Abbey show,” Mehaffey says. “It was like scripted, acted-out program notes.”

For example, Sir C. Hubert H. Parry’s “I was glad” was tied to Lord Grantham’s attendance at the coronation of King Edward VII (for which Parry wrote the piece). And a new arrangement of Parry’s  “Jerusalem” was connected to Lady Sybil’s attendance at a women’s rights rally (Parry assigned the copyright of the piece to the women’s suffrage movement). See Resources for a complete list of the concert repertoire.

Mehaffey and Fielding also secured permission to perform the orchestral theme song from the Downton Abbey program. “You could just feel people’s giddiness to be able to hear it,” Mehaffey says. “I have to say that in all the concerts I have conducted, I don’t recall another where the audience seemed to enjoy it so much. There was a palpable buzz.”

Rethinking community engagement

The Downton-inspired concerts are a potent example of community engagement, but perhaps in a more reciprocal way than we often think. “People aren’t going to love the music just because it’s pretty,” Mehaffey says. “You have to ask the question, ‘Why should an audience care?’ The neat thing about this is that the community brought something to the concert—something they knew and enjoyed, and we provided them with a new perspective on it.”

It’s a perspective that Mehaffey hopes other choruses will be able to pass on as well. As of December 2014, the chorus was in conversation with NBC Universal to officially license the Downton Abbey name. They hope to provide a Downton Abbey program “package,” complete with scripts and musical scores, that choruses across the country can perform on their own.


Oratorio Society of Minnesota website

MUSIC OF DOWNTON ABBEY program (March 8, 2014)

Downton Abbey Suite - John Lunn
I was Glad - Sir C. Hubert H. Parry
Nightfall - Patrick Hadley U.S. Premiere
Jerusalem - Sir C. Hubert H. Parry Arr. David Maurand
Crossing the Bar - Benjamin Dale World Premiere
My Soul, There is a Country - Sir C. Hubert H. Parry
I Vow to Thee, My Country - Gustav Holst Arr. David Maurand
Us and Them - John Lunn
As Torrents in Summer - Sir Edward Elgar
The Snow - Sir Edward Elgar
Beloved, let us love one another - Sir Sydney H. Nicholson U.S. Premiere
Selections from Funeral Anthem - George Frideric Handel for Queen Caroline
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge - Ralph Vaughan Williams
Rule, Britannia! - Thomas Arne

A DOWNTON ABBEY CHRISTMAS program (December 13, 2014)

Downton Abbey Suite - John Lunn    
Welcome, Yule! - C.H.H. Parry    
Once in Royal David’s City (Hymn Tune: IRBY) - Henry J. Gauntlett
The Holly and the Ivy - Rutland Boughton
Terly Terlow - Gustav Holst
What Sweeter Music - Sir Henry Walford Davies
Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah - George Frideric Handel
A Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) - Frank Bridge
A Christmas Greeting - Sir Edward Elgar
Now is the Time of Christymas - Arnold Bax
In the Bleak Midwinter - Harold Darke
Fantasia on Christmas Carols - Ralph Vaughan Williams
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (with audience) - Felix Mendelssohn

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