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Who was William Shield?

Pastel portrait of William Shield

And why is there a festival dedicated to him?

William Shield was probably the best-known composer of his age: the Lloyd Webber of his time! Born in Swalwell, near Whickham, in 1748, he was initially taught to play the violin by his father. Following his father’s untimely death William was apprenticed to a boat builder in North Shields, but may have been taken under the wing of Charles Avison, organist at St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle and a noted teacher of violin, flute, keyboard and composition. William evidently flourished in Newcastle’s cultural environment and may have been engaged as a violinist in Avison’s ensemble, which performed in venues as diverse as Seaton Delaval Hall, Gibside, Durham and Barnard Castle. In the early 1770s Shield composed and played music for local theatre companies, touring to towns including Sunderland, Durham, Scarborough and Whitby. He became principal viola at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London and resident composer at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. His first opera, Flitch of Bacon (1778) was followed by several others. Rosina (1782) was reputed to be set at Gibside. Other popular works include The Farmer (1787) and Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784). These operas would have provided a welcome relief from the political turmoil of the time, with the spectre of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte constantly in people’s mind.

These operas were really ballad operas with a lively spoken dialogue linking the songs, following the genre of The Beggar’s Opera. This music is very accessible, showing the strong influence of Handel, northern folk songs and the music of leading contemporary composers such as Mozart and Haydn. When Haydn visited London in 1791 he became acquainted with William Shield, who helped him set Scottish folk songs. Shield said that he learned so much from Haydn as they travelled and worked together. 

William Shield played chamber music with the future King George IV and was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1817.  Shield left his Stainer viola to the King on his death in 1829.

Shield seems to have been a thoroughly likeable and highly sociable person. It has been said that he was a founder member of the Roastbeef club of Covent Garden, though this has been disputed by scholars. Evidently a bon viveur, his operas certainly were popular and frequently lucrative. On his death, Shield was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. There is a memorial to him outside St Mary’s Parish Church, Whickham; Gateshead Council recently erected a plaque near the roundabout near Holy Trinity Church.

2020 sees the fourth festival with William Shield as its central figure. This year the focus is a retrospective of the years leading up to Shield’s time. 

In 2018 Rocket Opera gave the first performance of The Farmer (last heard circa 1800!), and the year before Rosina was given a revival. 

In 2019 ‘A night at the opera’ featured some of the most attractive arias from The Farmer and Rosina, and also a significant number of newly edited arias from Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. John Treherne has made a performing version of some of these attractive songs. Again, they are probably being heard for the first time in 200 years. The event took place at St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead, on Friday 8th November at 7.30 p.m.

Other events in the 2019 festival included a handbell rally, including an arrangement of Shield melodies on Saturday 2nd November in Holy Trinity Church, Swalwell (10.30 onwards), a lecture recital relating the influence of folksong on Shield’s music by the Shield Scholar Amelie Addison, accompanied by violinist Bennett Hogg on Thursday 7th November at 7.30 in Holy Trinity Church, Swalwell

On Wednesday 6th November Concert Royal performed music connected with Jane Austen (a contemporary of Shield) on instruments dating from circa 1789, including a Longman and Broderip Square piano, a Cahusac flute and an English Cello. This took place at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, which houses so many of Shield’s scores and which actively supports the William Shield Festival.

At 11 am on the Saturday 16th November at the Lit and Phil distinguished cellist Gordon Dixon  performed Bach’s sonatas for gamba and harpsichord, partnered by John Treherne. They were joined by the excellent tenor, Andrew Fowler, who performed songs by Shield, including Arethusa (one of the sea shanties heard in the last night of the Proms) and the Wolf (hugely popular in 1790). These contrasted with songs from earlier in the 18th century. New for this year’s festival, we were delighted to be associated with the Young Pianist of the North International piano festival which takes place in the Brunswick Methodist Church. 46 competitors from over 24 countries competed for prizes including the prestigious title Young Pianist of the North. A panel of international judges ensure the highest standards. Extraordinary Pianists aged 7 – 21 entranced the audience.  The prize winners’ concert was on 23rd November at 4.30p.m. 

There were also community events, featuring Whickham Community Orchestra and the Chasenotes Community Choir on Monday 25th November in St Mary’s Church Whickham. Amateur musicians were invited to perform on the afternoon of the 16th November at the Lit and Phil. Events sometimes ended with a performance of Auld Lang Syne, a melody possibly created by William Shield, and featured in his opera ‘Rosina’.  The whole festival is organised by the charity Community Music Whickham and Swalwell, which is dedicated to offering tuition, ensemble experience and culturally significant events to the north east community. For further details of the 2020 Festival please look at or Google William Shield Festival 2020. Tickets will available on Eventbrite and at the door.

We look forward to welcoming you to one or more of our events.

John Treherne MBE MA
Artistic Director, William Shield Festival.    Thanks to Amelie Addison for additional data.

A video of highlights from the 2016 festival can be found here :

For members of the Lit & Phil music library, works by Shield can be found in the Naxos Streaming Music Library. If you are a member and would like access please contact us by clicking on this link.

About the author

John Treherne

John Treherne MBE is an acknowledged education specialist. Published in his field, he was head of Gateshead's award winning music service until his retirement in August 2014. He now operates as a freelance consultant, leading in-service Music courses, examining for the ABRSM throughout the UK, and performing widely with his ensemble Concert Royal as a specialist performer on period instruments - harpsichord and fortepiano. He has toured throughout Europe with this ensemble, as well as the Americas, and has produced several LPs, CDs and cassettes.
An effective teacher, John has taught at all local North-East Universities, and has worked with children from nursery age to 6th Form. He has trained students at postgraduate and diploma level, as well as all ABRSM grades. He has also taught A level and GCSE as well as music theory.

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