[Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait], 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
from Songfest, 1977
By Leonard Bernstein, 1918-1990
Leonard Bernstein's Songfest was originally a Bicentennial commission but was not completed until 1977, nearly a year later. The twelve-movement cycle is scored for six singers and orchestra, including electronic instruments; the work was later arranged for reduced orchestra. The cycle begins with all six singers in an opening hymn, followed by three solos. The last four movements are in reverse of the opening four: three solos precede the closing hymn. The structure in the center of the cycle features ensembles: a duet, a trio, a duet, and a sextet. All of the texts are based solely on American poetry, ranging from the mid-seventeenth century to the present, and deal with a myriad of subjects, including love, social issues, daily living, and personal and creative aspiration. For Bernstein, Songfest represented the "portrayal of a comprehensive picture of America's past, as seen in 1976 through the eyes of a contemporary artist." While individual movements had been previously heard, the premiere of the complete cycle took place on 11 October 1977 with six singers and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Bernstein's setting of Walt Whitman's unpublished poem, "To What You Said," is the fourth song in the cycle. Nearly mistaken as an abandoned scribble, the poem was discovered on the verso of page thirty of the holograph manuscript of Whitman's Democratic Vistas (1871), which is housed in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress. Bernstein was reportedly attracted to the text not only because it was unfamiliar, but because the poem's message of repressed love spoke volumes to the composer who, during the time period Songfest was composed, was experiencing a sexual identity crisis. While many have suggested that "To What You Said" was Bernstein's homage to homosexual love, it is probable that the poem was instead intended for Anne Gilchrist, an Englishwoman who fell in love with Whitman. For a more detailed analysis of the text, including an examination of the poem's genesis as well as Bernstein's setting, see the article by Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold entitled "The Frailest Leaves: A Study of Whitman's 'To What You Said'," originally published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Winter 1995) but also available online at www.hampsong.com/projects/whitman.