Stephen Hoffman is an American piano prodigy who is so burnt out that he is seriously considering abandoning his promising career. In a last ditch effort to rekindle his love for music, Hoffman travels to Austria to study with world renowned piano teacher Professor Schiller. But first, he must take voice lessons for three months with the elderly Professor Mashkan, an eccentric vocal teacher with career issues of his own. While Hoffman's technical proficiency is matched only by his emotional detachment, Mashkan believes playing music means more than simply playing the right notes. In his mind, music must come from the soul. These two mismatched virtuosi begin sparring from the moment they meet and it soon appears that Hoffman's trip has been in vain. Their mutual love of music finally bridges the gulf between them. In time, the music and poetry of Schumann's Dichterliebe penetrates the emotional armor that surrounds each man and allows each to see inside the other's world. In time, both men not only learn important truths about one another, but about themselves as well.
Old Wicked Songs is set against a backdrop of the Austrian election that elevated former Nazi Kurt Waldheim to President. Simultaneously, the battle between Hoffman and Mashkan over emotional accessibility mirrors that of an Austria struggling to put the country's role in the Holocaust into perspective.