William Shield (1748-1829) is a much-neglected figure in British music yet, in his day, was a prolific composer of opera and Master of the King’s Music.
The son of a singing master, he was born in Swalwell (Gateshead). His father gave him musical instruction but died when William was nine years old. Thereafter, William was apprenticed to a Tyneside boat builder but continued to study music. He enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Charles Avison (another celebrated composer from Newcastle upon Tyne) who was then organist at St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle. Under Avison, William learned about composition, started to perform at concerts and dances, and became a significant violinist in Newcastle’s programme of subscription concerts. He was 21 years old when he was given his first commission: to compose an anthem which would be sung at the consecration of St. John’s Church, Sunderland.
Completion of his boat building apprenticeship allowed him to work away from Tyneside and he began to lead theatre orchestras in Scarborough and Stockton-on-Tees. At the same time, he struck up a friendship with the antiquarian Joseph Ritson with whom he shared an interest in the folk music tradition.
He was persuaded to move to London and by 1772 was playing violin in the Covent Garden Opera, becoming principal violinist in 1773. The chamber music which he wrote during this period could not compete with the more exciting music of Joseph Haydn but his first comic opera, The Flitch of Bacon (1778) was an immense success and contributed to William’s being appointed composer to Covent Garden. It is in comic operas that William’s contribution to English music lies. Hayden attended the first performance of The Woodman (c.1794) which is featured here.
In 1817 he became Master of the King’s Music and, upon his death; his favourite violin was given to King George IV.
The Woodman comprises 97 pages of music for solo voices and a chorus, and an accompaniment for keyboard. It was gifted to Newcastle University Library by Dr. David Garder-Medwin, President of the Friends of the University Library, in December 2010.