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 boat-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 <i>The Flitch of Bacon</i> (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 <i>Rosina</i> (1782), <i>The Poor Soldier</i> (1783), and <i>The Farmer</i> (1787), but his mainpieces, for example <i>Robin Hood</i>(1784), <i>Fontainbleau</i> (1784), and <i>The Noble Peasant</i> (1784) contain high-range arias of Queen of the Night-like difficulty. Haydn attended an early performance of <i>The Woodman</i> (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 <i>Pietà di me</i>. During 1791 Shield travelled abroad and began work on a set of string trios (1796) and two musical anthologies – <i>An Introduction to Harmony</i> (1800) and <i>The Rudiments of Thoroughbass</i> (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 concertantes 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 <i>pastorale</i> theme with hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment – possibly patterned on the overture to Arnold’s popular rustic opera <i>The Agreeable Surprise</i> (1781) – serves to release hunting-horns – not unlike the Squire’s ‘echoing horn’ in Arne’s <i>Thomas and Sally</i> (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.