January 16, 2021

Beautiful Music at Ground Zero

Trinity Church, 9/11 Memorial 2007, Photo by Barry Yanowitz

By Chaplain Mike

At historic Trinity Church in Manhattan, daily prayers for peace have been offered since the days following 9/11. This week, to mark the tenth anniversary, they will turn to the music of J.S. Bach to provide comfort for those commemorating the sad events of that day. The New York Times story reporting the concerts calls Bach, “the great comforter,” and as we will see below, the music chosen for these services is both fitting and deeply moving.

The church asked singing groups from cities and states directly affected by the attacks to participate in the week’s events. After performing at eucharistic services on Sunday, the Trinity Choir conducted by Julian Wachner, Trinity’s music director, will sing two alternating programs of Bach cantatas (BWV 131 and 106) and motets at 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Various groups will sing music from other composers in programs in the evening services and during a marathon of music on Friday, September 9, including the Brahms and Fauré Requiems.

The Trinity Choir will once again sing Bach cantatas on Sept. 10 and 12 (BWV 34, 79, and 192, “Now Thank We All Our God”) and will perform at special remembrance services on Sunday, Sept. 11.

You can read a full program of the events at Trinity Church for this special week HERE.

Ten years ago, the final act of many 9/11 victims was one of love. Facing the unthinkable, their parting gesture was to reach out to their families, friends and colleagues. Ten years later, let us ‘Remember to Love’ those who are gone, those who remain and those to come. Let us further remember and honor those who perished by generating a post-anniversary community committed to reconciliation and peace.

• The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, XVII Rector of Trinity Wall Street

Through these services, and a variety of other ministries for the first responders and others affected by 9/11, Trinity Church is showing the way of a truly Christ-like ministry for those touched by public tragedy.

Below, the Times article describes the part Trinity Church played in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. If you follow the links in the quote, they will take you to other articles giving more detail on Trinity’s historic legacy in times of national need, and how they came to play their current role as a memorial site for 9/11.

The 10th anniversary commemorations are but one more chapter in Trinity’s venerable history in New York. The parish was founded in 1697; the present church dates to 1846. St. Paul’s Chapel, six blocks north, was built in 1766 and remains the oldest continuously used public building in the city, the place where George Washington worshiped after his inauguration. As the towers collapsed in the nightmare of destruction on Sept. 11, both churches stood firm, barely touched although covered in grime.

Four days later St. Paul’s opened to police officers, firefighters and construction workers as a place to sleep, have their feet massaged and souls salved, eat at the barbecue outside or just find a bit of rest. Volunteers poured in. The fence outside became encrusted with hats, pictures, ribbons and other items. The walls inside were pasted over with cards and banners. After eight months and a cleaning the church resumed a more usual function, although it did not shy away from its 9/11 legacy, mounting exhibits inside that took on a permanent feel.

Now, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, how appropriate that Trinity Church should turn to the music of Bach as a means of probing the depths of our grief and providing spiritual perspective and comfort. Much of the music chosen for this week’s services reflect the heart-felt cries of the psalms of lament.

For example, here are the opening words from the first cantata to be performed:

Bach Cantata BWV 131 (from Psalm 130)

Out of the depths I call, Lord, to You.
Lord, hear my voice, let Your ears take note of the sound of my pleas!

The video below contains an insightful explanation by Ton Koopman of the tragic background behind this Bach cantata, along with a performance of its opening chorale. As you will see, Bach wrote this very music to bring solace in a time of public tragedy.

How marvelous that we can turn to such profound words and music for comfort still, in our seasons of loss!

And thank you, Trinity Church, for showing the love of Christ and providing beautiful music for those who still have the unforgettable noise of crashing towers echoing through their hearts and minds.


  1. Thanks for this Mike!

    I volunteered with my parish in December 2001 at Ground Zero at St Paul’s Chapel which is part of Trinity Church Wall Street. What a powerfully moving event it was. One I will never forget for many reasons.

    What a fitting way to help honor those who perished. Listening to Bach, to me, is (as the Celts would say) like visiting the thinner spaces. It makes me feel closer to God.

    May we all honor those who died of many religions and those of none. May we also try remember those things done in the past against humanity in the name of religion and prevent those that may be done in the future.

    Pax et bonum

  2. “Sad music is the most beautiful music existing.” Amazing statement, so removed from our current culture – especially evangelical.

  3. Thanks for bringing this up! As a music teacher on Long Island, I’m thinking field trip!

  4. I have to believe that services like these will bring back painful memories and evoke powerful emotions. Remembering is important, including remembering the pain and emotions. But how to do this respectfully, kindly, carefully, and in a way which will not manipulate or play on those emotions, I cannot imagine. Even a beautiful piece like Bach’s could bring on a sudden rush of emotions. I am imagining that 9/11 services in most churches will begin with a replay of video up on the jumbotrons from the opening moments of the tragedy amidst swelling, forboding music. I honestly don’t want to go through that. I can’t imagine how someone who lost a loved one on that day would react.

    • I’m pretty sure Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel are sans jumbotrons.

      • No doubt! I’m sure that service will be very tasteful. Bach knew how to lift spirits through his arrangements, not play on emotions.

        I think for evangelicals, who are taught by revivalism that emotions are a means to an end, knowing how to be sensitive to those emotions is a challenge. It may not be obvious to most pastors how to bind the broken hearted rather than tug on their heart strings.

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