The German lied was Schoenberg's primary medium of expression early in his career. Before his first publication he had composed numerous text settings and his Opp. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 12, 14 and 15 are all collections of songs. Even his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10, incorporates the voice into the third and fourth movements. Significantly, it is in his works for voice and piano that Schoenberg gradually began to move away from tonal composition. After realizing the bulk of his conception for the Gurrelieder (1900-03) and completing Pelléas und Mélisande (July 1902-February 1903) Schoenberg turned once again to writing songs.
The songs of Op. 6 are settings of poems by eight contemporary poets, and were composed at different times. In these songs we find Schoenberg vacillating between the harmonic vocabulary of the late nineteenth century and his own impetus toward abandonment of tonality. In October 1905, Schoenberg set P. Remer's Mädchenlied, with a constant stress on the tonic. In contrast, Lockung (by K. Aram), also set in October 1905, barely touches on the tonic. Similarly, Alles (Richard Dehmel), dating from September 1905, does not confirm a tonal center at all, while Am Wegrand (J. H. Mackay), also from October 1905, spends a great amount of time hovering around a single key area. Schoenberg would later quote Am Wegrand in his psychological monodrama, Erwartung, Op. 17.
Four of the eight songs of Op. 6 are particularly indicative of Schoenberg's style in 1903-5, and deserve close attention. Gottfried Keller's Ghasel was set in January 1904. Linear in conception, the accompaniment takes on the flow of the voice part and follows the voice in imitation as Schoenberg develops a three-note motive. The contrapuntal texture of Ghasel looks forward to In diesen Wintertagen, the second of the Two Songs. Op. 14.
Schoenberg was attracted to verse that depicts or describes psychological states, of which Traumleben (Dream Life) is a perfect example. Schoenberg set the poem (Julius Hart, 1859-1930) in December 1903, creating an intensely lyrical work that stretches the boundaries of tonality. Hart's text is the musing of a person recently fallen in love to whom the rest of the world is dead. Only the two lovers exist, in a rose garden surrounded by nightingales. Werner Öhlmann once referred to Traumleben as "One of [Schoenberg's] happiest lyrical inspirations."
Composed in December 1903, Verlassen (Forsaken) (Hermann Conradi, 1862-90) is possibly Schoenberg's gloomy reaction to critical hostility. The somber setting is in E flat minor, which is obsessively stressed despite the constant chromaticism. A slithering accompaniment evokes the image of fog-enveloped streets as the narrator leaves his home at daybreak. Forsaken, he is unable to enjoy the splendid spring morning. Schoenberg's formal organization follows repeated lines of the text, regardless of where they occur in a verse. For instance, the return of the first line in the second verse is accompanied by the opening music.
Der Wanderer, Schoenberg's only setting of a text by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), is a ballad with a bitter atmosphere composed in April-October 1905. Constant plodding and surging in the piano part convey the ceaseless stride of a traveler who becomes vexed when he hears a bird's song. When the wanderer asks the bird why it must cause a delay by tempting him with its singing, the bird answers in music that is set off from that which precedes it. Haltingly and forcefully the bird chides the wanderer, explaining that he is singing to attract a wife and does not understand why the wanderer cares to stop and listen to the song.