Julian Fellowes | My Music: ‘It's no accident that 19th-century operas get quoted in modern musicals’

Monday, April 8, 2013

The British author of Downton Abbey is fascinated by the interweaving of stories and music

Julian Fellowes
Julian Fellowes

One of the proudest moments of my career was when I had an effect on the musicals and operetta world. When I wrote the film Gosford Park I already had the characters of a film producer and his actor friend, and suddenly realised how much better it would be if Ivor Novello brought them to the house. 

We'd decided to set the film in November 1932 because the director, Robert Altman, didn't want Christmas and neither of us wanted the Nazis. The Reichstag burned down in 1933, so this was the last date when there could have been a house party without everybody discussing the Nazis. 

‘Just as modern architecture left decorated architecture behind to move into functionalism, so in music it was decided that melodic enjoyment was pretty bourgeois and should be all but abandoned’ 


I found that far from being the big 'I am' , at the end of 1932 Novello was at a hiatus. He'd had success as a silent film star but things weren't going well with the talkies. He had tried to rework The Lodger as a talkie (ignoring the fact that it was the brilliant Hitchcock who had directed the original). It was a complete flop and he realised then that his film star career was over. We know that he went on to be a great operetta composer, but of course he didn't know and he thought then that he'd return to the life of a jobbing songwriter and was in the most terrific depression. So his visit to the house, and Maggie Smith's character saying that nobody there would see any of his films, was entirely plausible. 

After Gosford Park's release there was a tremendous revival of interest in Novello. There were new albums, Jeremy Northam – the actor who played him – recorded his songs and there's talk of revamping one of his big shows. I'm pleased I was part of that. 

As a child my taste in music was fairly pedestrian. My grandmother and my father were fairly musical but I wasn't particularly. But then my mother thought me rather uncultured and during one holiday I was given a crash course – being taken to see Margot Fonteyn dance Sleeping Beauty, Joan Carlyle singing Arabella and Laurence Olivier playing Othello. We had a tremendous turn of luck. Big businesses often had boxes at Covent Garden; my father worked for Shell and was given fourth or fifth shout on the company's box. So for about three years in my late teens, we went there a hell of a lot. I became very fond of romantic opera – a Bellini/Rossini kind of guy, endlessly watching sobbing heroines in crinoline dying of consumption. 

I identified with a kind of glamorous romance, a doomed romance perhaps. The first opera I loved was La bohème. I suddenly got it, and the end of Act 2, the Waltz Song, was the first moment I was aware of being absolutely absorbed by music, moved, completely occupied by it. 

So my music is 18th- to 19th-century, before the melody as a form became cheapened by the 20th century and moved into Broadway. It's no accident that 19th-century operas get quoted in modern musicals. Those shows are more the successor to the Romantic opera tradition than contemporary opera, which has gone another way. Just as modern architecture left decorated architecture behind to move into functionalism, so in music it was decided that melodic enjoyment was pretty bourgeois and should be all but abandoned. 

On my film Young Victoria, I was fascinated to discover the queen's links to opera. Everybody knows the image of the widow in Balmoral, but the girl was tremendously passionate and very romantic. She wasn't allowed to go to the theatre so opera was her only theatrical entertainment. She, having a taste for high drama, became tremendously fond of Bellini, veering between I Puritani and Norma as her favourite opera. 

Working on the script gave me the excuse to play Joan Sutherland's I Puritani recording again, endlessly. That amazing voice never fails to astound me. 

There are three languages in film – verbal, visual and musical. And there are scenes where any one of these will become the most important. So music is vital to a film working.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today

Gramophone Print

  • Print Edition

From £6.87 / month

Subscribe

The Gramophone Digital Club

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive
  • Reviews Database
  • Events & Offers

From £9.20 / month

Subscribe

Gramophone Reviews

  • Reviews Database

From £6.87 / month

Subscribe

Gramophone Digital Edition

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive

From £6.87 / month

Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.