Setting the standard in technical progress
© Henk Rensink, mouthpiece specialist
To many clarinet and saxophone players, the Vandoren brand name is immediately associated with reeds and mouthpieces. The year 2005 marked the company centennial, though in actual fact Vandoren was not the first Paris-based mouthpiece manufacturer. Henri Selmer, following the footsteps of Adolph Sax, had already founded his clarinet reeds and mouthpiece factory as early as 1885. That left Robert Van Doren undeterred in establishing production and sales facilities for clarinet mouthpieces. A clarinet player himself, it is not known which make he used to play or take as a starting point for his first prototypes.
Vandoren was officially established as a reed factory by Eugène Van Doren in the same year that his son Robert was born. Eugène (1873-1940) initially produced his own reeds at home. This drew attention from other musicians and so it became a source of income besides his work as a clarinet player for the Paris Opera. He then devised a mechanical production method, thus enabling him to produce reeds on a larger scale. In turn, this necessitated a larger facility and 1905 saw a change of venue from his home 14 rue André del Sartre to a retail outlet with workshop at rue Lepic 51. The Vandoren Company was created. Advertisement of the 1910’s and 1920’s, depicts the workshop where clarinet and saxophone reeds are recommended, as well as double reeds for oboe and bassoon.
The move to rue Lepic
Eugéne’s son Robert proved to be not lacking in ambition. On completion of his studies at the Paris Conservatory he launched a career as a musician and made a successful tour of the United States in 1928. The aspect that really distinguished Robert was his outstanding tone. The American musicians started buying Vandoren reeds as well. As the enterprise gathered more and more momentum and soon Robert was occupied fulltime with the company. He took the helm in 1935 he moved across the street to the current rue Lepic 56 address, next door to the former abode of Theo and Vincent van Gogh (number 54) and close to the Montmartre quarter. It is also around 1935 that the 5RV mouthpiece was designed.
The dawn of mouthpiece production
Robert wanted to expand the business and initiated production and sales of a self-developed clarinet mouthpiece that carries his initials as a model name, the 5RV. It turned out to be an instant success that perpetuates to this day. The 1937 catalogue offered two versions: the 36 Franc ‘Ebonite’ and the 50 Franc ‘Ebonite Extra Supérieure’. Inevitably the line was augmented with mouthpieces for saxophone shortly after. A 1938 product brochure, that still carries the name of M. Eug. Van Doren, displayed the full range of ‘Diamond’ ebonite saxophone mouthpieces. The advent of dance and jazz music genres in the late twenties and thirties of the 20th century led to the introduction of other mouthpiece shapes, each with its own sound adaptation.
1940 saw the passing of founder Eugène Van Doren. Five years later, Robert’s son Bernard was born. A promise for the future! Like many European companies of the era, Vandoren also had representation in the United States of America. French/American firm Leblanc advertised in 1951 from the US with the Vandoren Perfecta line of mouthpieces. Large quantities made the journey across the ocean. But the increase in work required an increase in manpower and brainpower. In 1967 the third generation entered the company: the technically gifted Bernard Van Doren. Following in the footsteps of his father, he developed as early as 1968 a new clarinet mouthpiece, a new classic that derived its model designation from Bernard’s Christian name initial, the B45. To this day the B45 has maintained its popularity with many a clarinet player. Bernard didn’t stop there. He went on to implement numerous significant improvements in the production process. Realising all too well that the creation of one auspicious prototype doesn’t automatically guarantee perfect production models, Bernard moved the centre of gravity more and more towards mechanical production, thus ensuring a superior degree of precision and consistency. On top of that Bernard came up with several innovative mouthpieces for saxophone. The colour catalogue of 1968 featured a complete range of classical and jazz mouthpieces, including the tenor ‘soul’ 77 and 99, made with red ebonite.
Expansion through a host of novelties
With Bernard at the bridle, mouthpiece production multiplied tenfold to 250,000 pieces a year! Making quality products is one thing. Getting sufficient exposure, however, is equally important. In 1978 Vandoren participated in the Frankfurt Music Fair for the first time to demonstrate the products to the world. Some new mouthpieces weren’t in production long, others became industry standards. Among the latter were clarinet mouthpieces like the 11.6 model, the V5 series sax mouthpieces and the Meyer-based Java (Jazz-Vandoren) editions. In 1987 the A27 and T27 saxophone mouthpieces were introduced, followed by Jumbo Java for alto and tenor, fashioned after Dukoff example. The robust baffle made it the most forceful mouthpiece in the line-up. In 1988 the short-beaked Profile 88 models were introduced in the clarinet range. These facilitated the positioning of the mouthpiece in the mouth to be adjusted to the musician’s personal preference. In order to cater for clarinet players favouring German models, Vandoren added mouthpieces with German facing in 1989 (VD2, VD3 and VD4). And the B45 was complemented with the introduction of the B45 Lyre with a slightly larger tip opening. Vandoren’s first metal mouthpiece was released in 1994; the Otto Link-inspired V16 tenorsax model, made of die-cast bell bronze on account of the specific material properties. The old sixties Meyer models were the inspiration for the V16 ebonite saxophone mouthpieces. As a mouthpiece manufacturer Vandoren successfully managed to break away definitively from the somewhat one sided ‘strictly classical’ stigma with these V16 eye catchers.
From metropolis to hamlet
The production facilities were moved from urban Paris to the rural south of France in 1990 for several reasons. By then the company had grown to 150 employees, 120 of which were involved in the reed and mouthpiece production process. Not just the machinery had to be moved, but the indispensable craftsmen with their wealth of experience as well. Vandoren settled in Bormes les Mimosas (Var), in the vicinity of the reed plantations on the French Riviera.
The vacated factory spaces in Paris are by now in use as offices, showroom, testing cabins and sales department. Robert Van Doren passed away in 1996. He left the Vandoren company in able hands. After his passing the tradition of innovative design carried on unabated with the 2000 introduction of the M15 Profile 88 clarinet mouthpiece, later the A5, A6, A7, A8 and A9 alto sax V16 mouthpieces, based on legendary models from the Fifties. And after a similar vintage concept, 2003 saw the introduction of the Classical Optimum series for soprano, alto and tenor saxophone and more recently, Baritone saxophone. During the next few years, at the request of jazz musicians, the V16 jazz series extended with the soprano (S6, S7 and S8) mouthpieces and with the Tenor (T7, T8, T9 and T10) mouthpieces.
The 100th birthday of Vandoren was celebrated in 2005 with the limited edition of a luxurious Photo album. And a special “Vandoren magazine’ was released with a Cd-Rom containing these 100 pictures. Technical development caught in a static medium, but with progress written all over it.
It is a testimony to a company that, in its passion for innovation, has demonstrated that it’s able to supply musicians with excellent reeds and mouthpieces now and in the future. Musicians shouldn’t be hindered by shortcomings like there were in the past. We can rest assured that in the future the fourth generation Vandoren will be ready to take over in the same pioneering spirit as displayed by a century of family tradition.