Like many musicians, John Curtis loves his instrument.

Curtis, the owner of Musikhaus Studios in Cape May Court House, is so enamored of his latest acquisition that he can't wait to show it off.

So on Sunday, the music teacher and performer will be playing a harpsichord concert at St. Barnabas by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in the Villas.

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The program will feature music by Bach and Purcell, but the real reason to come is to hear the songs played on this modern version of an old music classic.

"People who come will hear some of this music sounding the way it is really supposed to sound on an instrument that it really was composed for," said Curtis, who has spent the last month familiarizing himself with his new instrument in anticipation of the performance. "A lot of music that we now play on piano, we really shouldn't play on piano. Anything by Bach can be played on piano, but if you want to hear what it sounded like when he composed it, you have to play on a harpischord or another keyboard instrument of the period."

For those without an intimate knowledge of 17th century musical instruments, Curtis is happy to explain the difference between the harpsichord and its look-alike cousin, the piano.

The heart of both instruments is a huge stringed frame. In a piano, these strings are struck by hammers activated by pressing on the keys. In a harpsichord, manipulating the 61 keys results in the strings being plucked. This produces a sweet tinkling sound that gives the harpsichord its distinctive tone.

"There is something about the feel of the instrument itself - when you touch the key - you are directly connected to the string through pieces of wood and one pivot and a little quill. You actually feel the string," he said. "When you play the harpsichord, you have to completely adapt to the idea that banging on the keys won't make it any louder. You learn how to play very evenly."

While the instrument fell out of favor several hundred years ago, it has been making a comeback of sorts in the 21st Century.

Curtis learned the harpsichord while a student studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Temple University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He taught music at a college in Pennsylvania, and would occasionally use a harpsichord available on campus.

Curtis' instrument, with it's handpainted decorations of birds and flowers, might look like something found during a tour of Versailles, but it was actually created in 2010 by Theodore Robertson, a craftsman from Indiana.

Curtis did not have to search too hard for his instrument. The Harpsichord Clearing House, at, is a site that serves as sort of a consignment shop for harpsichords. The instruments usually cost between $7,000 and $25,000, with Curtis' falling at about the midpoint of that range, he said.

But if most fine musical instruments have a soul of their own, harpsichords also come with their own personalities. There is no standard harpsichord design, with the number of keys on an instrument - and even the number of rows of keys - varying.

"The design was not standardized, because back in the 17 and 18th centuries nothing was standardized," he said.

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


If you go

Concert featuring Harpsichordist and organist John Curtis and soprano Judy Curtis, 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Barnabas by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 13 West Bates Ave., Villas. Admission is free. Call 609-536-8379

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