Interview with Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams (composers of The Gilded Age)

“They didn’t necessarily want it to sound like ‘Downton Abbey,'” recalls Harry Gregson-Williams of the first thoughts that 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 City during the “golden age” of robber barons, rapid industrialization and big money. “It was an exciting time in the country of the United States and there was energy and money thrown everywhere,” Rupert notes of how the series differs from its creator’s earlier 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 CoonGeorge and Bertha Russell, railroad tycoons, which incorporates an ‘ostinato’ with a ‘busy string pattern’ to reflect the ‘energy’ of the moment. Rupert says they then paired this theme with the “more melodic, softer parts of the melody” to represent the more genteel old silver, represented by Christine Baransky and Cynthia Nixonthe characters of Agnes Van Rhijn and Ada Brook.

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As the series is a chronicle of a very particular moment in American history, the composers wanted to ensure that they respected the instrumentation of the time while adding their own flourishes to the sound. “Most of the sound in the score is orchestral, based on a good-sized chamber orchestra that HBO was kind enough to give us for each episode,” Harry reports. Even so, he notes how their orchestrations are “slightly less conventional” than an average late 19th-century piece. Harry references Rupert’s Emmy-nominated work on ‘The Crown’ as a model who boasts a bit of ‘quirkiness’ in the way he approached his period; Rupert has another nomination and Harry has already won an offer 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,” though they didn’t originally plan to team up on this one. “Unbeknownst to each other, we were shortlisted among composers,” Rupert recalls, while Harry adds that his agent told him: “There are two other people they were looking seriously at, and one of them is your brother. Rupert calls their partnership on this project a “natural fit.”

SEE ‘The Gilded Age’: Julian Fellowes’ new period drama is extremely rich in Tony Award-winning actors

The composers discuss their work on two of the show’s many characters in detail. For George Russell, Harry wanted to reflect his “plot, rather ruthless streak” in his musical cues, so they opted for “a snake-like bass clarinet sound”. Rupert mentions Marian’s signals (Louisa Jacobson), which upon the series premiere arrives in New York for the first time and serves as the audience’s entrance into the series’ universe. 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 claim their own identity, musically”.

“The Gilded Age” will return for a second season and just started filming in the last few weeks. Although Harry and Rupert will have to wait a while to see any new footage, Harry says he’s “excited to see where it goes”, adding, “The characters are ripe to move forward.” Emphasizing the show’s theme of technological progress, Rupert quips, “Maybe Season 60 will be the Internet?”.

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