Much like his musical idol, Gustav Mahler, Bernstein had a special feeling for the genre of concert songs with orchestra. He loved to conduct Mahler's song cycles and had composed song movements for his own Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies. Songfest began as a work loosely patterned on the outline of Benjamin Britten's Spring Symphony comprising four movements, and as many as eight singers. Eventually, the cycle was extended to twelve songs for six singers, which broke down into an opening sextet; three solos; three ensembles (duet-trio-duet); a second sextet; solos for the other three singers; and finally a third sextet.
The subject matter celebrates America's cultural diversity, with poems written from the point of view of black Americans, homosexuals, exploited women, contented wives, belly dancers, teenagers and expatriates. Bernstein calls on as many musical styles as there are songs in the cycle, and the range of poetic styles is broad. In order of appearance, the poets chosen were Frank O'Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Julia De Burgos, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and June Jordan (two poems were combined in a duet), Anne Bradstreet, Gertrude Stein, Conrad Aiken, Gregory Corso, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edgar Allen Poe.
Bernstein responded to the excellent poems with humor, wit and passion, making Songfest "his most openheartedly and unpretentious American work," according to his biographer Humphrey Burton. If there is one flaw, many critics contend it is the orchestration, which is sometimes too heavy for the voices to be heard. Yet there are many felicitous details in the settings, such as in Whitman's poem "To What You Said," in which a meltingly beautiful melody is first heard in a solo cello and then hummed by the other five soloists as the solo baritone intones the poem to a descant. Bernstein's favorite was a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet "What lips my lips have kissed." Some have speculated whether an autobiographical message was inherent in the final lines "I cannot say what loves have come and gone/ I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more." Bernstein denied such an interpretation, saying in a 1979 interview, "Summer still sings in me...If nothing sings in you, you can't make music." Not soon after the success of Songfest, he began writing a scenario for his first full-length opera, A Quiet Place.