Raff took up his post as teacher at the Upper Primary School in Rapperswil on Lake Zürich in October 1840 and was soon regarded by the community as a great asset. He was a firm disciplinarian, but was popular with his pupils and had an encyclopedic knowledge.
Almost immediately, however, his childhood interest in music reasserted itself. He made strong and enduring friendships with two musically-minded brothers. Anton and Franz Alexander Curti (professional singer and doctor respectively) encouraged him to compose and he gained a potentially influential friend in Franz Abt who, at only 22, was appointed Kapellmeister in Zürich in 1841. He began traveling there often to attend Abt's concerts.
Outside the classroom, the young Raff was described as being the "most lovable, good humoured man" with "golden glasses" - he was already short-sighted. In the classroom, however, he mirrored his father's strict regimen and disciplined with a slap when he was in a bad mood. These must have increased as it became clearer to him that teaching was not for him, despite a pedagogic streak and a love of children. His first love was music, but he knew that his family would be vehemently opposed to any idea of giving up his promising career. He was in turmoil.
This conflict was exacerbated by a brief romantic involvement with a married woman, from which he extricated himself only to be plagued by doubts about his musical ability. "You are a fool, have learned nothing, know not at all whether you have talent" he recalled telling himself . With the exception of his Serenade op.1 (dedicated to Anton Curti) he failed utterly in getting any of his early works published at the time and this added to his despair.
Trying to reach a resolution to his dilemma, he had the good sense to be persuaded by Abt and the Curtis to write to Mendelssohn, sending him some of his compositions for his opinion of them and asking for his advice on whether he should give up teaching. Mendelssohn's reply was very encouraging and he suggested that Raff should abandon his teaching job and travel to Germany as soon as he could. In the meantime, he sent Raff's pieces to his own publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig with his recommendation. They eventually published 13 of Raff's earliest piano works.
The young man was elated but it spelt the end of his teaching. "His thoughts were on his piano compositions" wrote a pupil of his, and he devoted all his spare time to adding to the basic musical knowledge which he had gained at the Jesuit College.
Encouraged by Mendelssohn's positive response and Breitkopf & Härtel's support, Raff made a sudden decision in August 1844 to quit teaching and take up music full time. His father railed against the decision and, in his turn, was berated by his relatives in Württemberg for allowing his son to waste his talents. Raff's uncle, a bishop, accused Joseph Raff of "knowing how to create nothing from your son but a begging musician". Even his mother and sisters weren't supportive. His employers tried to persuade him to stay with promises of promotion, but he was determined to go and left with testimonials crediting him with "possessing superior knowledge in all teaching subjects" and confirming that he "enjoyed the best reputation".
Amidst all this stress Raff moved on to larger scale compositions - the first version of the Piano Sonata op.14 dates from this time. He gave two concerts largely consisting of his own music in Nuolen, a spa near Zürich. These positive developments were offset by more problems of his own making. He got involved in the political turmoil which was sweeping Switzerland at the time. On a visit to his family in Lachen he spiked the organ of the church in Lachen so that it couldn't play at a Te Deum in honour of the local leader of the conservative faction. As a result he had to flee back to Rapperswil and his reputation amongst his relatives declined even further.
He now had no income and soon exhausted his savings. Falling into debt, in December 1844 he was declared bankrupt. It isn't known whether he was imprisoned as a consequence (as was usually the case then) but the unpaid debt certainly resulted in a spell in prison a few years later in Weimar.
He moved from the small town of Rapperswil to the local metropolis, Zürich, to try to improve his fortunes by giving lessons and making arrangements. It was to no avail - the city's musical life at that time could hardly support Kapellmeister Abt himself. Despite his friend's efforts to find him work, Raff remained destitute and even slept rough - he returned to the city with his wife in later years, to show her the tree under which he had sheltered.
Raff's salvation from this Dickensian descent into poverty came in suitably melodramatic fashion. He read that Franz Liszt would give a recital in Basel on 18 June 1844. He had never heard a "great artist" perform and decided, despite his penury, to make the 75km (46m) trip to hear him. Having no spare money, he had to walk there. It was a day of bad weather and, nearing his destination, he stopped at an inn for a drink and a rest - asking to be woken after a few hours so that he would be in good time for the concert. The innkeeper took pity on the bedraggled Raff and let him sleep on. He was distraught when he woke and realised that he had little time left. He rushed out into the storm and arrived breathless and soaked to the skin at the ticket office of the theatre, only to be told that the recital was sold out and was about to begin. Raff's protestations that he had walked from Zürich just to hear Liszt play fell on deaf ears but, in one of those curious chances upon which people's lives turn, he was overheard by the virtuoso's secretary Belloni.
He took Raff to a side room and instructed him to wait. As Liszt stood in the wings, Belloni told him about Raff. Liszt, ever one for the grand gesture, replied "Bring him here! He is to sit next to me on the stage". Raff was fond of recalling in later years that, as Liszt played, "a complete circle of rainwater gathered around me on the floor; like a spring's source I sat there". The audience's reaction can be imagined...
After the concert Raff opened his heart to the great artist, who obviously took a strong and immediate interest in the young man. The warm-hearted Liszt seems to have been charmed by Raff's passion and commitment to music and appears to have divined something special in the bedraggled 22 year old. No doubt to Raff's amazement, the maestro eventually bad him farewell with the words "Stay with me. I'll take you with me to Germany". True to his word, Liszt's route took him back through Zürich, from where Raff left with him for Germany. He would never live in the land of his birth again.