Shield was first taught music by his father but, after both he and his mother died while Shield was still a child, he was apprenticed to a ship-builder in South Shields, continuing however to study music with Charles Avison in Newcastle upon Tyne.
He became a noted violinist in Newcastle's subscription concerts before moving to Scarborough to lead a theatre orchestra. In 1772, he was appointed by Felice de Giardini to play violin in the opera at Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House), and from 1773 he was principal violist there.
Shield also worked as a composer for Covent Garden and, in that capacity, he met Joseph Haydn. In 1817, he was appointed Master of the King's Musick. Like Haydn, not to mention several other composers of his time, Shield was a great plunderer of folk tunes (in his case mostly from his native Northumbria).
Shield's works include a large number of operas and other stage works, including one on Robin Hood, as well as instrumental music, but he is principally known for his light English opera Rosina (1781). It was intended to be used as a light afterpiece to a more "serious" work sung in Italian. Such works were common at the time, although Rosina is the only one that has survived in the form of a complete score.
Rosina has a number of features associated with later English comic opera, and even modern musical comedy - including the use of English, spoken dialogue, lightness of theme, and the use of folk and popular medodies. At least to that degree, it may be regarded as one of the ancestors of the musical, and Shield as one of the first composers of musicals.
William Shield died on Sunday, January 25, 1829 (the date celebrated as Robbie Burns Day) at his house at 31, Berners Street, London. His will (dated 29th of June 1826) left his worldly goods and a glowing testimonial ”to my beloved partner, Ann, Mrs. Shield”.
His favourite violin was given to King George IV, who insisted that the full value be given to Ann. Within six months she also sold his library of music, but nothing more is known of her.
Shield is buried, in the musicians section, (south cloisters), of Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. Surprisingly, it seems no marker of any kind was put in place at the time to show where he lay. Strange state of affairs for a man who was so well known to kings! There was quite a search made near the centenary of his death and eventually a small marble tablet was put as near the grave as could be ascertained.
John 'Mad Jack' Fuller commissioned sculptor Peter Rouw (1771-1852), of Portland Lane, London,to create a memorial to mark the grave of his friend William Shield in Westminster Abbey. The dean of the abbey, Dr Ireland is said to have refused permission for the tablet to be installed as he took objection to the word “gentleman” being used in its text. Fuller subsequently had the tablet installed at his home church, St Thomas à Becket, Brightling, Sussex where it remains. A medallion portrait of William Shield in profile is accompanied by this inscription:
Sacred to the memory of WILLIAM SHIELD esquire, master of His Majesty's band of music, who died January 25th 1829, aged 80 years, buried in Westminster Abbey, "This gentleman's name independent, of his high character and virtues, in private life has a claim to be enroll'd, among the most eminent musical, composers that have hitherto prov'd, an ornament to the British nation", John Fuller of Rose Hill Esq, DDD.It is presumed that the words, “buried in Westminster Abbey” were inserted. DDD is an abbreviation for the Latin Dat, Dicat, Dedicat which can be translated to “ Gives, Devotes and Dedicates”.
A memorial cross was erected to honour Shield in 1891 at Whickham Church, his native parish. Near it is the oldest Shield grave. “Here lieth Peter Shield and Mary his wife, mother and children. Dep this life April Ye 8th 1747.”
The most recent revival of the "Shield wrote Auld Lang Syne" story seems to date from 1998, when John Treherne, Gateshead’s musical director, uncovered the original manuscript for the opera Rosina in the Gateshead Public Library, while he was looking for new works for the town's youth orchestra. “I thought it was appropriate to look at the work of a Gateshead-born composer. I picked out Rosina by Shield,” Mr Treherne said. "I started to copy out the score and hummed the tune as I was writing it down. I was coming to the end when I realized the tune floating through my head was Auld Lang Syne..”
The melody concerned (which exists as a brief quotation near the end of the Rosina overture) - has since been claimed to be the source of the tune to Robert Burns' famous song, and Shield's own composition. Both claims seem to be highly unlikely, a very much more probable case being that both Shield and Burns independently borrowed the tune, or at least its general outline, from an old folk song.
Rather more likely, but just as liable to raise Scots hackles, is the possibility that the melody itself may very well be Northumbrian rather than Scots! However, the original provenance of many British folk melodies is doubtful - and after all Northumbria and Lowland Scotland are contiguous, and have strong cultural affinities.
Incidentally, the theme from the Rosina overture is not identical to the melody to which Auld Lang Syne is sung - in fact (as anyone taking the trouble to listen to a recording will quickly notice) it is closer to Coming through the rye (essentially the same tune anyway) but that is not quite such a good story!