Lullabies

'Toy Symphony': Who wrote this delightful little piece?

Thomas KohlerCC BY 2.0

July 16, 2015

To this day, no one is quite sure who wrote Toy Symphony. The kid-friendly work has worn Franz Joseph Haydn and Leopold Mozart's names throughout the years, but it is now disputed whether either of them wrote it.

Even without a name attached to it, the piece has become a mainstay for children's shows and Christmastime concerts. Each of its three movements features the sounds of actual toys and instruments that sound like they came straight from Geppetto's workshop. The piece calls for a trumpet, ratchet, nightingale, cuckoo, drum, and for a handful of toys. Noisemakers rattle throughout the first of its three movements. The cuckoo and nightingale call out mischievously during the second, and in the third, the trumpets channel their inner kazoo. The presence of the toy instruments make this a fun piece for children to play, especially when there are also some toys waiting under the tree.

Composed in the mid-1700s but not published until well into the 1800s, Toy Symphony first appeared with the last name "Haydn" on it. A story surfaced that Haydn composed the piece after buying a handful of toys at a fair, then played it for his children at a Christmas party. Because the work did not appear in Haydn's self-assembled catalog of work, scholars started to second-guess this story.

The piece is now commonly credited to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father and teacher, Leopold. He was thought to have composed a similar work, The Musical Sleigh-Ride, which uses sound effects in the same playful manner. But Leopold was known throughout his career to hand-copy pieces he admired, and it was later discovered that Leopold might not have written Sleigh-Ride either. Some have speculated that the piece comes from songs written by different musicians from around Berechtesgaden, a city that produced many toy musical instruments at the time.

It's possible that Toy Symphony's real writer will never emerge. It's also possible that the composer wanted to remain anonymous. Like Camille Saint-Saens and his Carnival of the Animals, the composer might have thought the piece was too silly to be lumped in with a more serious body of work. The public has voted its approval, though—and who can resist a bunch of noisemakers cranking in time with the first violin?

Hailey Colwell is a writer and a recent college graduate living in St. Paul, Minn. She enjoys producing plays, running, and looking after other people's pets.