Tallis composed this very brief anthem for Edward VI’s sternly protestant England. It’s for four voices (SATB) and in the in ABB form (in other words it’s in two sections the second of which is repeated exactly – mfi) that was so popular with Edwardian and early Elizabethan composers. These days it’s most often sung as an anthem but I’m not entirely sure that that was Tallis’ intent I think it very likely he intended it for private devotions to be sung at home rather than in a church. I have several reasons for thinking this. For a start a keyboard transcription of it appears in ‘The Mulliner Book‘ that landmark collection of English music compiled between 1545 and 1570 by Thomas Mulliner1. Secondly although Tallis’ setting of an unidentified penitential metrical text is firmly religious he also set it as a secular part-song ‘Fond youth is a bubble’ whose text while not exactly cheerful is nevertheless definitely secular:
Fond youth is a bubble blown up with breath
whose wit is weakness, whose wage is death,
whose way is wilderness, whose inn penance;
and stoop gallant age, the host of grievance.
The late Paul Doe believed that the secular version was the earlier one and this combined with its appearance in Mulliner seems to me to be fairly strong evidence that Tallis intended ‘Purge me …’ for private performance – demand was high and Tallis was under pressure to show at least outward devotion to the Reformation, why not take a melody that people were already familiar with and turn it to another purpose?
Thomas Tallis (±1505-1585): Purge me o Lord
Purge me, O Lord, from all my sin,
and save thou me by faith from ill,
that I may rest and dwell with thee
upon thy holy blessed hill.
And that done, grant that with true heart
I may without hypocrisy
affirm the truth, detract no man,
but do all things with equity.
- Chapelle du Roi conducted by Alistair Dixon
- London, British Library, MS Add. 30513. ↩