To What You Said

This song is Leonard Bernstein’s setting of Walt Whitman’s unpublished, incomplete poem/letter “To What You Said.” A magnificent mixture of personal pathos and public plea for tolerance and understanding, the piece comes from a cycle called Songfest. Originally a Bicentennial commission, the song cycle’s texts are all by American poets.

Date: 1977Composer: Leonard BernsteinText: Walt WhitmanSong Collection: Songfest

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    “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 30 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 also because the poem’s message of repressed love spoke to him at a time when he 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 itself was 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 and 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 “A Study of the Text and Music For Whitman’s ‘To What You Said'”.

    –Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.



    To What You Said
    by Walt Whitman

    To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
    Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
    Nor I to you,
    Behold the customary loves and friendships the cold guards
    l am that rough and simple person
    l am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
    And l am one who is kissed in return,
    I introduce that new American salute
    Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
    Behold the received models of the parlors —
    What are they to me?
    What to these young men that travel with me?

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    Sheet Music


    Composer(s): Leonard Bernstein

    Song(s): 1. The Pennycandystore Beyond The El
    2. A Julia de Burgos
    3. To What You Said
    4. Music I Heard With You
    5. Zizi's Lament
    6. Sonnet: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed...

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