From the opening footage of HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’ series, music by composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Rupert Gregson-Williams gives viewers a sense of the ambition and drive of the conflicting ‘new currency’ with “old money” from the 1880s. New York.
The brothers – Los Angeles-based Harry, Rupert just outside London – usually work on different projects, and most often for feature films (Harry’s credits include ‘The Martian’ and ‘The Last Duel’, while that Rupert’s include “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman”).
But the two are former Emmy nominees (“Electric Dreams” for Harry, “The Crown” for Rupert) and this is their second TV collaboration, following 2019’s Hulu series “Catch-22.” Considering the volume of music demanded by “The Gilded Age,” nearly six hours for the 10 episodes, they were happy to get together professionally.
“It was nice to have two pairs of hands on it,” Harry said. “Up or 35, sometimes 40 minutes of music [per episode] had to be written, approved, orchestrated and actually performed live. It was a big job, and it stretched us.
Finding the appropriate musical style was an intriguing challenge, says Rupert: “Coming out of the American period and in a certain New York period, we used an orchestra, which was conventional, but then we brought in unconventional sounds that sometimes surprised, and helped tell the story of how old and new money met and collided.
These surprising sounds included hammered dulcimer, ukulele and a Finnish string instrument called the kantele. Producer-director Michael Engler “really liked these colors and encouraged us to use them,” adds Rupert.
The title’s main theme, released by WaterTower Music, is a dynamic piece against a backdrop of imagery of the railroad, stocks and bonds, men in top hats, grand staircases and sparkling chandeliers, all designed to evoke the elegance of the period.
“We felt it needed scale, elegance, size and breadth,” notes Rupert. It’s the theme of the Russells, the railroad tycoon and his rising wife (Morgan Spector, Carrie Coon). “We thought the main theme should be new money.”
A second major theme represents the van Rhijn family (led by Christine Baranski), former residents of Manhattan who resist change and resent newcomers. “We spent a lot of time, a few weeks, experimenting and launching thematic material,” says Harry, “to clarify and help tell the story. The characters have layers and take off in multiple directions, so there’s always on-screen turmoil, and we reflect that musically.
Although created and co-written by “Downton Abbey” author Julian Fellowes, the filmmakers weren’t looking for similar music, the brothers said. The orchestra is larger (48 musicians, against 35 for “Downton”) and the generous budget of HBO allowed them nine hours of recording for each episode.
The score was really co-written, the brothers say. One would write thematic material and send it to the other. “We confused each other,” Harry said. “We shared files with each other, talked about what we liked and what we didn’t think was useful.”
Harry ran the set from Los Angeles while Rupert monitored the recordings, in real time, from his studio in England. The whole process took about four months, they said.
As for their unusual billing (“Music by the Gregson-Williams Brothers”), it was an improvement over an earlier version, which “sounded like ‘Mr. and Mrs. Gregson-Williams,’ felt bad,” cracks Rupert Harry suggested “the Gregson-Williams brothers,” whom they preferred as “kinda funny and kind.”