William Shield





Probably the most famous of Swalwell  people, William Shield was born in the village on March 5th 1748 and began singing and playing the violin at the age of six Later he served as an apprentice boat builder in North Shields . In 1769 he composed the anthem for the consecration of St. John's Church, Sunderland. He then performed at Scarborough and later joined the orchestra of the Italian Opera House in London. After an appointment as the first solo-player in the King's Theatre, he was given the post of Master of the Musicians-in -Ordinary to the King in 1817. He died in Berner's Street, London, in 1829, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. On his death he bequeathed his Stainer violin to King George lV. There is a monument to Shield in Whickham churchyard and a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey.  There is also a lesser known memorial stone to Shield in Brightling Church in East Sussex which was erected by his friend John 'Mad Jack' Fuller, MP and Squire of Brightling. It was sculpted by Peter Rouw a well known sculptor of the time.

Some of Shield's works are listed lower down this page as are details of the  Auld Lang Syne controversy

 The various stones commemorating Shield are shown below. under the  account of his funeral.





Shields Works

1782 was a landmark year for William Shield, witnessing his appointment as ‘house’ composer to Covent Garden, the première of Rosina, his most enduring operatic success, and the publication of the Op.3 string quartets – arguably the finest written by a native English composer during the eighteenth century..

William Shield (1748-1829), born in Swalwell, County Durham, was taught the violin by his father but music lessons were suspended when the death of first his mother then his father saw the orphaned boy apprenticed to a Tyneside boar-builder. Shield soon extricated himself from the apprenticeship to take up violin and composition with Charles Avison. His reputation as a concert performer soon spread, and, on the advice of Giardini, he travelled south to London where he secured the position of first violin, later first viola, in the orchestra of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The opera repertoire seems to have stimulated Shield into writing his own stage music and The Flitch of Bacon (1778), written for the Haymarket Little Theatre, was a hit. About this time the viola player William Napier became Shield’s publisher, issuing two sets of violin duets as Op.1 (1778) and Op.2 (c.1780). Following his appointment at Covent Garden, Shield wrote a string of successful operas and pantomimes; the most popular were afterpieces, for example Rosina (1782), The Poor Soldier (1783), and The Farmer (1787), but his mainpieces, for example Robin Hood (1784), Fontainbleau (1784), and The Noble Peasant (1784) contain high-range arias of Queen of the Night-like difficulty. Haydn attended an early performance of The Woodman (1791) and he and Shield became friends. Shield often said that he learned more about music in the company of Haydn than from any other source, and Haydn, impressed by Shield’s ability to write extended arias with colourful concertante wind parts, presented him with a copy of Pietà di me. During 1791 Shield travelled abroad and began work on a set of string trios (1796) and two musical anthologies – An Introduction to Harmony (1800) and The Rudiments of Thoroughbass (1815). Shield, appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1817, wrote the last of all court odes. He was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey and willed his Stainer viola to George IV.

No performance of the Op.3 quartets is cited in contemporary sources but it is likely that they were premièred by Wilhelm Cramer’s string quartet which, active from 1784 to 1792, consisted of Cramer, Luigi Borghi, Benjamin Blake and James Cervetto or ?William/James Smith. Shield himself was a seconded member (due to Borghi’s illness) for the Professional Concert season of 1789, playing viola in Haydn’s Op.54 quartets (received in manuscript from the composer himself) as well as new quartets and concert antes by Pleyel. Among the artists who joined forces with Cramer’s ensemble in 1789 were the oboist William Parke, a close friend of Shield’s for whom the oboe quartet was undoubtedly written, and Shield’s publishers, William Napier. The dedicatee of the Op.3 set, George seventh baron Kinnaird, a Scottish representative peer, was an active patron of the arts and possibly noticed Shield as a promising Northerner; his son Douglas was a friend of Byron.

The Op.3 quartets were written with a string player’s grasp of textural matters, particularly in the phrasing and articulation of themes and the transparency of parts which offers rewarding activity to each individual player. Shield’s goal in the quartets seems primarily one of enrichment, of gaining the most from a single or small number of ideas. A striking example is the Finale of Op.3 No.2 where a recurring theme generates developmental episodes; even more, the theme itself is presented in turn by the first violin, second violin and viola. Movements such as this map the geography of Shield’s popular bucolic operas where the countryside and home cottage signify symbolic sites of sanctuary. Here, the pastoral theme with hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment – possibly patterned on the overture to Arnold’s popular rustic opera The Agreeable Surprise (1781) – serves to release hunting-horns – not unlike the Squire’s ‘echoing horn’ in Arne’s Thomas and Sally (1760), folk-dance and lark-song in successive episodes before closing off ruminatively. The last quartet in C minor is the most progressive. The unified impulse which sweeps across all of its three movements, allied to a wealth of material interconnections, as well as the strength of feeling it communicates, must have been surprising to first hearers. The music of the opening Allegro manages to fold characteristic sonorities and proportions that will define the behaviour of the whole work and, once again, there is a cross-generic influence of English comic opera; here, the forward thrust released into dislocating effects and outbursts, represents the expressiveness of stage encounter. The tender middle movement suggests painful soliloquy and the first violin’s written-out cadenzas easily associate with soaring soprano coloratura. The Finale, employing folk-like material (Shield collected folksong) pricked by C minor-major regretfulness, further underlines the nurturing English landscape motif as a source of regeneration.

Operas & Pantomimes & Pantomime




A Flitch of Bacon




The Poor Soldier


Robin Hood




The Noble Peasant


The Lock and Key


The Farmer


The Woodman


The Mysteries of the Castle


The Castle of Andalusia


Hartford Bridge


Two Faces under a Hood


Lord Mayor's Day


Friar Bacon


Musical Anthologies

An Introduction to Harmony

The Rudiments of Thoroughbass

Violin Duets

Opus 1

Opus 2

Chamber Works

String Quartet in B-flat Opus 3, No. 1

String Quartet in F Opus 3, No. 2

String Quartet in C Opus 3, No. 3

String Quartet in E-flat Opus 3, No. 4

String Quartet in D Opus 3, No. 5

String Quartet in C-minor Opus 3, No. 6.


The Ploughboy

Old Towler

Comin Thro The Rye

The Thorn

Nora, Dear Norah

The Arethusa

The Heaving of the Lead

The Post Captain

The Wolf

Let Fame Sound Her Trumpet


An Account of Shield's Funeral

(With the kind permission of The Dean & Chapter, Westminster Abbey)

The remains of this eminent musician and most amiable man were removed from his residence on Wednesday, the 4th of February, and deposited in the South cloister of Westminster Abbey, amongst other men of genius who have done honour to their country. The procession was of the most simple and unostentatious kind, like the estimable composer himself, and consisted merely of a plain hearse and two mourning coaches, containing a few of Mr. Shield's most intimate friends, followed by the private carriages of some of his other acquaintances. The mourners were Mr. Thomas Broadwood (the executor), Colonel Crosdil, Mr. J.B. Cramer, Mr. V. Novello, Mr. Blake, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Parkinson and Mr. Cahusac.

The body was received at the door of the Abbey (where it arrived about 12 o' clock) by the gentlemen of the choirs, of whom there was a most numerous attendance, and the musical part of the service began. It consisted of the admirable service in G Minor by Dr. Croft. On the entrance of the coffin into the choir, and after the mourners had taken their places in the stalls, the fine funeral chant by Thomas Purcell was performed. This was followed by Dr. Greene's masterly anthem in A Minor, "Lord, let me know mine end," in which the fine processional bass, stalking throughout the movement, had a most charming effect. The coffin was now removed towards the cloisters, during the progress to which was performed the inimitably fine verse composed by Purcell, to the words "Lord, thou knowest the secrets of our hearts;" which Croft, who composed all the rest of the service, would not even attempt to reset, as he despaired of producing anything at all to compare with this exquisite specimen of Purcell's deep feeling and pathetic expression.

On the body's being lowered into the grave, (which is quite close to that of his old friend, Mr. Salomon, and not very far from his still more intimate friend, Mr. Bartleman - who lies in the West cloister, by his master Dr. Cooke), the remainder of the service was concluded in the most solemn and affecting manner, by the voices alone, which contrasted most powerfully with the proceeding movements that were accompanied by the organ, and produced a an indescribably striking and impressive effect. Nearly the whole of the most eminent members of the musical profession surrounded the grave. Seldom have more genuine sorrow and regret been evinced than were depicted on the countenances of all present at this sad ceremony ; for never was committed to his "parent dust" any one more universally or more deservedly respected and beloved.

Shield's Memorial Stones



                           Westminster Abbey            Brightling Church         Whickham Church Yard


Shield's memorial plaque at the foot of Hood

Street in Swalwell


Portraits of Shield

In Shield's time, only the famous and affluent could afford to have their portraits painted. It is testament to Shield's standing that not only did he have six portraits painted or drawn of himself, but one of them was by no less an artist than Thomas Hardy. Not bad for a lad from Swalwell..!!


                                         Thomas Hardy's 1796                 An 1822 watercolour                A 1798 pencil sketch

                                            Portrait of Shield                       by John Jackson                      by George Dance




                                     An 1826 pencil and chalk               A 1788 painting by               An 1809 copy of the 1798

                                  sketch by William Brockedon            Robert Dunkarton               sketch by William Daniell


The Auld Lang Syne Controversy

Until a few years ago it was assumed that the music to this famous song about time, love and friendship was the work of Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Controversy arose a number of years ago over claims that the tune was in fact written by SWALWELL born composer and musician William Shield, and appeared in his opera Rosina.. With headlines such as ‘England lays claim to Auld Lang Syne’, appearing in the Independent, some people understandably got a little hot and bothered …


A retelling of the biblical story of Ruth in a rural North of England setting, Rosina was William Shield's fourth opera, and was a considerable success at its premiere on the last day of December, 1782. The biography of Mrs Brooke, who wrote the wrote the words to Shield’s opera, states "The run of Rosina was extraordinary. There were two editions called for in its first year, 1783... by 1786 there were eleven editions; others followed in 1798 and 1796... and the work was reproduced in numberless forms, notably in the 'Modern British Drama, 1811’. The tune at the centre of the controversy comes from the last section of the overture. (given below)

Clearly a popular tune it its day, it seems reasonable to imagine that it was heard by Burns, adapted and put to his words. Unfortunately there appears to be a strong case for arguing that neither Shield, nor Burns were responsible. Further more, what seems to have annoyed many people (not least the Scots) is the fact that Burns never actually claimed authorship of the tune, or the song, in the first place!


According to Nigel Gatherer : “It's long been known that Burns did not write all the words to 'Auld Lang Syne', and he was the first man to say so. The first three verses belong to a much older song, to which Burns added two more.” Robert Burns in fact sent a copy of the original song to the British Museum with the comment: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing , is enough to recommend any air." Of the music Burns commented "[the tune] is an old air, the rudiments of the modern tune of that name. The other tune you may hear as a common Scots country dance."

As for Shield having composed the tune, Phil Britton draws our attention to a radio interview with a representative of the National Library of Scotland broadcast on Radio Newcastle a number of years ago. ‘She said that the tune was known as the Millers Reel and was used by Burns for Auld Lang Syne, in fact if you read through his collected works he gives the name of the tune for quite a few songs in it. She said that as Shield's opera was premiered in Edinburgh he more than likely followed the practice of including local tunes to win over the audience.’ Another important point with regards to Shield’s contribution, can be found on the title page of Rossina which states that the music to the opera was "written and selected" by William Shield. As with Burns, Shields never laid claim to the tune himself.

So if the tune was already a popular melody when Shield penned Rosina, and Burns by his own admission, was not responsible, where did the tune come from?

Going with the Independent’s claim of English authorship, Andy Williamson points us to the New Grove Dictionary of Music’s comments on Rosina: "Because the scene is laid in the North of England, Shield ended his overture with a tune he orchestrated to suggest bagpipes; no doubt he had heard it played by Northumbrian pipes. Rosina was so popular that the tune in Shield's version became well known all over Britain, and today we sing it to the words 'Auld lang syne'. It may well not be Scottish, and but for Shield it would not have become famous." Williamson concludes that in the end, no-one is going to be able to prove whether Shield wrote the tune, or stole it. He will, however, be sticking to the theory of Northumbrian origin if it manages to wind a few Scots up!

He might however be somewhat of a solitary voice amongst those who give a convincing argument for the tune's Scottish origins: According to one source, The words of 'Auld lang syne are good, but the music is an old air, the rudiments of the modern tune of that name. The other tune you may hear as a common Scots country dance. 'What was 'the other tune'? Probably the tune which we know today, and to which Thomson published the words in Scottish Airs, 1799, claiming them to be 'From an old MS. In the editor's possession', which was at least slightly more honest. The first strain of the familiar tune appears in 'The Duke of Buccleugh's Tune', in Appollo's Banquet, 1690, though I am inclined to think this establishes nothing beyond yet another interesting example of melodic coincidence. Its 'common Scots country dance' version appeared first in Bremner's Scots Reels, 1759, under the title 'The Miller's Wedding' and in Cumming's Strathspeys, 1780, as well as in McGlashan's Strathspey Reels, also published in 1780, in which it was called 'The Miller's Daugher'. Its commonness is attested by the fact that it appeared in at least a further five similar publications within the next thirty years; was used twice to different words in the Museum; and was employed in a slightly pruned version in William Shield's ballad-opera Rosina in 1783. It is also closely related to the melodies of 'O Can you labor lea' and 'Coming thro' the rye' which appear to derive basically from the same strathspey as 'Auld Lang Syne'.”

The above is merely a brief discussion of some of the main arguments arising from the history of this famous tune. Personally I agree with Andy Williamson, and might even opt for Northumbrian origin.

Extracted from Folk Archive North East (FARNE)


A writer in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in December, 1891, wrote:

I have been privileged to read the correspondence between Dr. Bruce and Mr. Chappel, the learned author of Popular Music in the Olden Times, on this subject, and I am firmly convinced that the opinion of both Dr. Bruce and Mr. Chappel is fully borne out by historical facts, that the air of "Auld Lang Syne" was first published in the opera Rosina composed by Shield.


The tune first appeared in an altered form in 1687 under the title "The Duke of Bucclugh's Tune". In subsequent years it was known by a variety of titles: "The Miller's Wedding", "Sir Alexander Don's Strathspey", "The Lasses of the Ferry", "Roger's Farewell", "I Fee'd a Man at Martinmas", and so forth. In 1783 it was used in the overture to the opera "Rosina" by William Shield. The words now commonly sung are commonly ascribed to Robert Burns. That view has been challenged by some authorities

So who is right?

But after aa' that (as Burns would have said) ....... do we really care? Most people do not know more than one verse of the song - and even then it is sung incorrectly because people are unsure of the words!!!  Anyway, the FULL song is shown under.


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne


We twa hae run aboot the braes

And pou'd the gowans fine;

we've wander'd mony a weary foot

Sin' auld lang syne


We two hae paidled i' the burn,

Frae mornin' sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar'd

Sin' auld lang syne


And here's a hand, my trusty friend,

And gie's a hand o' thine;

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne







Copyright © 2001-2013 David Newton