The Golden Era of Clarinet Mouthpieces

Based largely on an article by Brad Behn
Additional Information based on writings by Ramon Wodkowski
Modified by Ed Joffe

The so-called “Golden Era” of French clarinet mouthpiece construction crystalized during the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, many mouthpieces were machined from high quality, super-resonant, Grade-A rod rubber. The best representations of that era were beautifully made hand-finished mouthpieces produced by the Chedeville and LeLandais companies. They existed alongside the more established Selmer, Buffet, Leblanc, and Vandoren factories as well as smaller manufacturers. The mere mention of a vintage Chedeville or Lelandais mouthpiece still manifests a sense of intrigue and excitement since they are truly prized possessions among woodwind aficionados.

Charles and Henri Chedeville along with Albert Lelandais apparently learned much about mouthpiece manufacturing and crafting from Eugene Bercioux, a French engineer and clarinet maker. Bercioux made great inroads in mouthpiece construction and developed machines for facing mouthpieces and large-scale manufacturing. He was largely influential in designing mouthpieces for both the Woodwind and Meliphone companies in the 1920s during the years that he lived in America. However, his younger French disciples have remained more well known within clarinet circles and their mouthpieces remain among the most highly regarded works of art.

Chedeville was a well-established company in the instrument repairing and manufacturing tradition at the turn of the 20th century that derived from a line of instrument makers and musicians. Their factory in Paris, France was founded by Charles Chedeville in 1924 and was at the forefront of acoustic and scientific explorations from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. The name Chedeville eventually became a benchmark in mouthpiece design and manufacturing. Charles had a cousin, Henri Chedeville, who was also a woodwind repairman and mouthpiece designer. Henri moved from France to New York in the early 1900s where he initially earned employment with Selmer. Later, he moved to Philadelphia and opened his own shop where he served area musicians with repair services as well as mouthpieces for sale.  Additionally, he acted as an importer of Chedeville mouthpieces from France by brokering for instrument companies within the U.S. In addition to obtaining Chedeville blanks for his own mouthpieces, Henri would also sell these blanks to American companies such as Bettoney, Bonade, and Kaspar and those mouthpieces also became highly popular.

In the early 1920s, Henri returned to France. He utilized his pedigree and skills to manufacture mouthpieces using rubber rods as his material foundation. Although he didn’t have access to the highest quality rod rubber on all production runs and because his well-made mouthpieces received a great deal of hand-finishing, there were consistency issues, as would be expected. Tragically, Henri died in the early 1930s, but Charles continued to turn out mouthpieces until the onset of World War II made it difficult to continue to acquire the necessary products for manufacturing his mouthpieces on the same level. In addition to mouthpieces branded with the Chedeville name and logo, his factory produced mouthpieces for other French instrument companies as well including Bettoney, Buffet, Leroy, Robert, Meliphone, Barbier, and Couesnon. Those offerings had the possibility of yielding excellent results. Even so, the very best and rarest mouthpieces of this Golden Era were a combination of luck (receiving Grade-A rod rubber of ideal acoustic properties) and skill (producing mouthpieces from rod rubber with hand finishing techniques that maintained superior bore and chamber volumes). 

In 1949, the Chedeville and Lelandais companies merged under the name Chedeville-Lelandais with factories in Paris and Philadelphia. They produced clarinet mouthpiece blanks under their own respective names and for other companies such as Delacroix, Bonade, Buffet, Evette & Schaffer, Kaspar, among many others. However, the blanks that they offered from this point on were different than the older Golden Era models with regard to the materials and design.

Rubber changed a great deal over the years and the quality of mouthpiece design and of manufacturing also changed. As could be imagined, the World War II era created chaos in France and the glorious craftsmanship and manufacturing quality was in disarray throughout that period. After the war, with limited access to the same premium rod rubber and new post-war rubber manufacturing processes in place, the creation of the previously esteemed mouthpieces changed. Instead of being engineered from a milling process as many pre-World War II models were, they were now created with a molding process. Sadly, this modern change for convenience caused a severe change in both finish quality and acoustic quality, although many fine clarinetists successfully played these post-war models.

Throughout their histories, Chedeville and LeLandais also made saxophone mouthpieces with varying degrees of success. In fact, the Meyer Bros. mouthpieces of the 1950s came out of the Chedeville-Lelandais factory in Philadelphia and were played by several great saxophonists including Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and Phil Woods. However, the names Chedeville and Lelandais are still largely associated with the clarinet mouthpieces of the Golden Era.

By the early 1970s, the Glotin company purchased the company and in more recent times, the Chedeville company has re-emerged under various owners. In addition, there are now several companies that claim to produce the rubber closely associated with the Golden Era mouthpieces to recreate that special sound.

Materials & Manufacturing Process
Let’s examine the process by which the Golden Era clarinet mouthpieces were manufactured and how that may have contributed to their unique qualities. Rubber’s curing-process requires extreme heat. High quality rubber is essentially natural rubber latex mixed with sulfur and then cured. The result is a very stable, hard material that can yield great acoustics. The process, however, comes with a few significant difficulties. Most rubber manufacturing processes have two volatile stages–extrusion and curing–in which swelling, distortion and gouging can become significant issues.

The extrusion process precedes the cure, and it is the process of forcing a mixed rubber formula under heat and pressure through a suitably shaped nozzle or die into the pre-cured rod shape desired. This gives the manufacturer the ready-made rod shape needed for their cure.  Extruded rubber also requires fillers to prevent charring from occurring as it works through the extrusion machine’s extreme heat and pressure. These fillers, although different than the ones used for stability during the cure, also have a deleterious effect over resonance in that they slow down the response and seem to take the sweetness out of the sound. To combat this and stabilize the curing process, fillers and accelerants are frequently added to the mix. These foreign materials do reduce volatility and distortion during the rubber’s cure, but they can alter the beautiful natural resonant characteristics of its acoustics. 

It is important to mention that the mouthpiece manufacturers during this period did not actually make the rubber that would be the soul of these wonderful specimens.  The rubber was produced in machine shops setup with mills and lathes.  Of course, these machine shops were uniquely equipped with musicians and craftsmen (the mouthpiece makers) who created the mouthpiece blanks from rod rubber sourced by the general-purpose Rubber Rod/Sheet factory in Paris. While many 1920s Golden Era mouthpieces were made from rubber rod stock, all were not necessarily made from the same quality rubber and there were even different grades of rod rubber! Some older mouthpieces from this era were marketed as Steel Ebonite and were made of good rubber, but not necessarily rod rubber. As to whether there were significant differences between these different types of quality rubber has always been a matter of debate. The important point to remember is that the mouthpiece makers were oftentimes dealing with a decent grade of rubber AND that the material used to create mouthpieces is of the utmost importance when it comes to the tonal characteristics of a particular mouthpiece.

Grade-A rubber was the most desirable because it contained the fewest foreign materials, required the longest cure, and happened to have the best acoustics since it did not contain the stabilizing ingredients and accelerants required for cheaper grades.  Grade A sounded good, but it wasn’t always readily available during the turmoil during and immediately after World War I. Also, since rubber was the wonder material of the day, it was used in countless objects from dentures to book covers, ornate carvings, and sculptures. It was under constant product development and although a great deal of science and energy was dedicated to its cause, the focus was to produce material for large-scale industrial purposes, not for woodwind mouthpieces. The music companies simply used whatever rubber was available to them. So not all Golden Era French mouthpieces were of the same quality or material, used the same inner and outer design, and didn’t all achieve the ideal playing experience. A truly great Golden Era mouthpiece was rare, even during the best of times. But when the parts were all there, the sum often exceeded expectations and inspired generations of clarinetists to come. 

In summary, the vintage clarinet mouthpieces of the 1920s/1930s pre-World War II period are still remembered for their unique tonal qualities and continue to inspire current-day players. They would forever change the way we view the playing experience due to their resonance, sweetness of sound, and response. Many still consider the mouthpieces created during this period to be the best of the best! It is the hope of this writer that this article will peak one’s interest in the companies that are still seeking to recreate the beauty of sound represented by the Golden Era mouthpieces.

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