The German Lied was Schoenberg's primary medium of expression at the turn of the century. Before his first publication, he had composed numerous songs and his Opp. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 12, 14 and 15 are all song collections. Even his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10, incorporates the voice into the third and fourth movements. Whereas the more famous, Verklärte Nacht hovers close to the edge of tonality, it is in his works for voice and piano that Schoenberg gradually moved away from tonal composition.
Aside from Allein dir Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr' and the three songs of Op. 48, these are the last songs Schoenberg composed. Furthermore, the Op. 22 songs would be the last work he completed until the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, in 1923. During the seven-year hiatus, Schoenberg developed his "method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another," realized in the last piece of the Op. 23 set.
In his Four Orchestra Songs, Op. 22, Schoenberg creates a continuously high level of dissonance in several parts with little octave doubling, while the soloistic writing for the orchestra gives the impression of transparency. Chords tend to be symmetrical, and we find a general enlargement of the polyphony of Pierrot lunaire to something more akin to polyharmony, in which entire chords provide a counterpoint to single parts. The result is an extremely dense texture. The voice part is written in a more traditional manner than in Pierrot; Schoenberg momentarily abandons the Sprechstimme style for sung vocal lines.
Schoenberg's setting of the Four Orchestral Songs had its precedent in his Herzgewäsche, and the last three of the four songs look forward to the religious preoccupation of Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder).
Seraphita, by Ernest Dowson, trans. Stefan George (1864-1933), was composed in October 1913. The intensity of Schoenberg's compositional style is evident from the beginning of the instrumental introduction. The opening clarinet line is built of minor seconds, or half steps, with an appended minor third. Ensuing phrases are built of motives consisting of a combination of minor thirds and seconds in one order or the other. The vocal part, consisting of four sections separated by interludes, begins with the same motive and closes with a melody built almost entirely of different forms of the motive. Throughout the song, this and other motives and larger melodies are varied and developed in a fashion that had become almost a ritual for Schoenberg.
The motive also appears in Alle welche dich suchen, from Das Stundenbuch, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Schoenberg's setting of which was completed in November-December 1914. Perpetual change marks this extremely brief song, which features little development. Instead, Schoenberg imbues the smallest elements with connections to seemingly all other aspects of the piece. Such a web of relationships creates, in a roundabout manner, the sense of constant organic growth.
Mach mich zum Wächter deiner Weiten, also from Rilke's Das Stundenbuch, dates from December 1914-January 1915. Divided into three sections, the song contains nearly identical parallels between segments, especially the first measure of the voice part and the first measure of the instrumental introduction.
Schoenberg set the fourth poem, Vorgefühl, also by Rilke, in July 1916. Here we find Schoenberg respecting the smallest nuances of the text, not so much in terms of meaning, but of how the words would be articulated when spoken. This, of course, works against any possible melodic regularity, as Schoenberg himself acknowledged.