“They didn’t necessarily want it to sound like ‘Downton Abbey,’” recollects Harry Gregson-Williams of the early thoughts he and his brother Rupert Gregson-Williams received from the producers of the HBO series “The Gilded Age.” Created by Julian Fellowes of “Downton” fame, the show is set in 1882 New York during the “gilded age” of robber barons, sweeping industrialization, and vast sums of money. “This was a time in the country in the United States that’s exciting and there’s energy and money being thrown everywhere,” notes Rupert on how the show differs from its creator’s prior work. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
For the main title theme, the Gregson-Williams brothers focused on marrying the sounds of old money and new money. The composers wrote a theme for the Russell family, including Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon’s railroad tycoons George and Bertha Russell, that incorporates an “ostinato” with “busy string pattern” to reflect the “energy” of the moment. Rupert says they then paired that theme with the “more melodic and sweeter parts of the melody” to represent the more genteel, old money, represented by Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon’s characters Agnes Van Rhijn and Ada Brook.
Since the series is a chronicle of a very particular moment in American history, the composers wanted to ensure they respected the instrumentation of the era while also adding their own flourishes to the sound. “The bulk of the sound of the score is orchestral, based on a good size chamber orchestra which HBO were good enough to give us for every episode,” reports Harry. Even so, he notes how their orchestrations are “slightly less conventional” than an average late nineteenth-century piece. Harry references Rupert’s Emmy-nominated work on “The Crown” as a model that boasts a bit of “quirk” in how it addressed its period; Rupert has one other nomination, and Harry previously earned a bid for “Electric Dreams.”
“The Gilded Age” marks only the second time the brothers have collaborated on a score, the first being the limited series “Catch-22,” although they didn’t initially plan to pair up on this one. “Unbeknown to each other we were shortlisted as a couple of the composers,” recalls Rupert, while Harry adds that his agent reported back to him, “There are two other people they were seriously looking at, and one of them’s your brother.” Rupert calls their partnering on this project a “natural fit.”
The composers discuss in detail their work on two of the many characters on the show. For George Russell, Harry desired to reflect his “plotting, his rather ruthless streak” in his musical cues, so they opted for “a low, snake-like bass clarinet sound.” Rupert mentions the cues for Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who in the series premiere arrives in New York for the first time and serves as the audience’s entrance into the universe of the show. He describes the character as “a little stubborn and a little cheeky” as she tries “to push the parameters and barriers with the old money” crowd, including her aunts Agnes and Ada. Harry adds that Julian’s “characters are so deeply drawn that they’re crying out for their own identity, musically.”
“The Gilded Age” will return for a second season and just started shooting in the past few weeks. Although Harry and Rupert will have to wait a while before they see any new footage, Harry says he’s “excited to see where it’s going to go,” adding, “The characters are ripe for moving forward.” Emphasizing the show’s theme of technological progress, Rupert quips, “Perhaps Season 60 will be the internet?.”
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