1. Natur – Nature (verse by Heinrich Hart)
2. Das Wappenschild – The Escutcheon (from the collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”)
3. Sehnsucht – Longing (“from the collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”)
4. Nie ward' ich, Herrin, müd – Never Mistress did I grow tired (Verse by Francesco Petrarca)
5. Voll jener Süsse – Full of that Sweetness (Verse by Francesco Petrarca)
6. Wenn Vöglein klagen – Elegy of Little Birds (Verse by Francesco Petrarca)
In the summer of 1903, Schoenberg returned to Vienna from Berlin. His experiences in the German capital were mixed. As a composer, he made great strides forward but over the same eighteen months, had failed singularly to advance his career. This second Vienna phase however proved a turning point. He then became personally acquainted with Mahler, and in 1904 took on his legendary pupils, the twenty one year old Anton Webern, the nineteen year old Alban Berg and the eighteen year old Erwin Stein.
Schoenberg began his Six Orchestral Songs in November 1903 and first wrote “Wappenschild” (“The Escutcheon”) Many analysts regard this song as the most forward looking of the six. Schoenberg's maturing stylistic hallmarks were characterised by his music's tonal instability, its hectic gestures and richly contrapuntal textures. He also exploited the inherent possibilities of contrasts between chromatic and whole tone scales in a highly original and exciting way, quite unlike Debussy's own procedures. He began to set “Natur” to music a month later. This fascinating and noble song is closest to the world of Wagner and in it, we perhaps gain the weakest impression of Schoenberg's personal style. Some critics said as much, and a few years later, they found an unlikely ally in Schoenberg himself!
The cycle continued in the summer of 1904 with added momentum, when Schoenberg wrote the three Petrarca songs. In 1905 he composed “Sensucht.” This latter is the shortest song of the cycle, and its refined simplicity and landler character recalls Mahler.
The songs had to wait until a Prague concert in 1914 before they were finally performed. The conductor was Alexander Zemlinsky and the heroic tenor voice was supplied by Hans Winkelmann, whose father Hermann was the first ever Parsifal at Bayreuth. So much water had passed under his compositional bridge by this time that Schoenberg could observe the Six Orchestral Songs with detachment and critical objectivity. “Of my six songs, I now regard four as more important than the other two (“Natur” and “Sehnsucht”) – if I am allowed to talk about my own preferences. The most effective without doubt was “Wappenschild” but I think the Petrarca songs were the most successful” he wrote in a letter before the Prague premiere. After the concert, his opinion had not changed significantly and he ranked them in the following order: “The best and most effective was “Wenn Vöglein klagen”, then “Voll jener Süsse”, then “Wappenschild.” From the point of view of the penetration of the text and the musical setting, “Natur” and “Nie ward' ich, Herrin” are not satisfactory.”