Raff's debt to Franz Liszt for giving him more than a helping hand in getting his career started is well known, but it was actually a very different sort of composer, Felix Mendelssohn, who was responsible for Raff taking up the vocation of composer in the first place. Whilst a 20 year old teacher in Rapperswil, Switzerland, Raff made friends with the Curti brothers. Franz was a talented amateur musician and his brother Anton was a singer at the Hessian Opera in Kassel. Through Anton Curti and Franz Abt, Raff became aware of Mendelssohn and studied his music.
Raff began to doubt that he was cut out to be a teacher, so immersed was he in matters musical. He had already begun to produce his first compositions and, encouraged by Abt and the Curtis, he bundled a few of his latest works together and wrote to Mendelssohn asking for his advice. Should he "leave his job, family, everything to become a musician"? He was prepared to do so, he told Mendelssohn, if the older composer felt his talent merited it.
After an anxious time waiting, he received a very encouraging reply from Mendelssohn who suggested that he should indeed give up his teaching job and travel to Germany as soon as he could. In the meantime, Mendelssohn had forwarded Raff's pieces to his own publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. Although his letter to them is lost it is reputed to have suggested that, had the composer already got a "name" he would have been paid for the works in gold. As it was, Mendelssohn asked only that the publishers meet the cost of publication themselves - which they duly did. Breitkopf & Härtel became Raff's first publishers. In a neat twist, they were also publishers of some of his last piano works forty years later.
Raff was overjoyed but Mendelssohn dismissed his repeated thanks by saying that he had paid him but "a small service". He was soon the dedicatee of Raff's op.8 of 1843 - the 12 Romances en Forme d’Études.
The two finally met at a music festival in Cologne in May 1846. In the meantime, the young man had not travelled to Germany but he had given up teaching, become a full-time musician, gone bankrupt, been rescued by Liszt and had taken up employment in a piano shop in the Rhineland city. At their meeting Mendelssohn displayed his characteristic kindness and interest in the new compositions which Raff showed him, but criticised the way in which Raff aped both his and Liszt's styles without grasping the artistic basis upon which they rested. Raff confessed to him that he felt the need for basic theoretical study.
Straightaway, Mendelssohn made the suggestion that Raff should finish his studies under the master's direction in Leipzig. As soon as he returned from his proposed visit to England, Raff was to write to him. “Then you come to me; we will seek advice about your livelihood” were his parting words. Raff was left, as his daughter Helene wrote "with a heart full of joyful hope; it really seemed as if it would open for him more than a way out of the less than satisfying situation in Cologne.”
The two did indeed exchange warm letters upon Mendelssohn's return from his trip, but in the meantime Raff had fallen out with his employers in Cologne and began a period of travel, which ended in a year's sojourn in Stuttgart where he arrived in 1847. Always in the back of his mind was Mendelssohn's invitation to study under him in Leipzig, at the Conservatory which he had established there. As a signal to the future, it vied with his continuing long-distance relationship with Liszt, remote because of his constant concert tours. Raff felt, however, that he was in an enviable position having two such eminent, if dissimilar, contemporaries interested in him.
Quite suddenly his choices narrowed to one. Although he had been seriously ill for some time, it was still a shock to Raff to learn of Mendelssohn's death on 4 November 1847 at the age of 38. Two years later, whilst traveling from Stuttgart to Hamburg, Raff deliberately detoured via Cologne so that he could look again at the window where he had last been together with Mendelssohn. Even in his old age Raff still remembered with sadness the great disappointment of the untimely death of his first patron.
Although Raff was thrust firmly in Liszt's orbit as a result of Mendelssohn's death, his mature style retained noticeable characteristics of the older man's music. This is particularly clear in his orchestral music where many of Raff's scherzo movements have roots in the Mendelssohn tradition. Despite his long adherence to the more extravagant new German school of Liszt and Wagner, Raff's orchestra essentially has the modest dimensions of Mendelssohn's. As he got older, Raff's style became sparer and more classical, a legacy perhaps of his early association.