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Leaving behind Paris and the acclaim of the music world, eighteenth century piano virtuoso Franz Liszt settles in Switzerland with his mistress, Countess Marie D'Agoult, who abandoned her husband for the pianist. Although they have two children, Marie and Franz are at odds because Marie wants Franz to give up performing for composing, and Franz, who is torn between the glory of music and the glory of God, resents Marie's opposition to their children being raised in the Catholic faith. One evening, Franz's manager Potin and friends, Georges Sand and Frédéric Chopin, arrive and tell him that his fame has been usurped by the upstart pianist Thalberg. Overcome with professional jealousy, Franz instructs Potin to arrange a recital for him in Paris on the very night that Thalberg is performing. In Paris, as Franz triumphantly returns to the stage, Thalberg's concert hall is nearly empty. Among the few patrons are Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein and her husband Prince Nicholas of Russia. Canceling the concert, Thalberg sends his meager audience to Franz's recital, where Princess Carolyne is transfixed by his fiery performance. Princess Carolyne and Prince Nicholas go backstage to congratulate Franz, and when Carolyne mentions that they are on their way to Vienna for the opera season, Franz, smitten by the princess, rationalizes going to Vienna by offering to perform a charity concert there for the people of Hungary, his homeland. In Vienna, Franz greets his mother, a devout Catholic, and admits that he is torn between his desire for the cloistered life of the monastery and his thirst for acclaim. After Franz's Vienna concert, Nicholas invites him to play for the court in St. Petersburg and Franz follows Carolyne there. When the Czar disrupts Franz's performance by coming in late and talking, the pianist storms out of the room, but Carolyne persuades him to return by asking him to play for her. Continuing on to Dresden to perform, Franz is displeased when Marie unexpectedly arrives. After Marie pleads with him to return to her, Franz explodes in fury and walks out. Proceeding to the opera house, Franz hears composer Richard Wagner rehearsing a score. Impressed, Franz asks to read the score, but Wagner, who had previously been rebuffed by Franz, upbraids the pianist for being "drunk with applause." After Marie leaves him, Franz, tired of performing, instructs Potin to cancel the tour. To motivate Franz to continue, Potin reminds him that Carolyne is in Kiev. There an anonymous patron offers Franz money to play at the cathedral. Stating that he would never charge to play for God, Franz refuses the sum and performs for free. After his recital is over, Franz finds Carolyn at the altar praying, and she confides that she put up the fee. Mentioning that her husband is away, she asks him to come to her home and play for her. As they flirt and verbally joust, Franz admits that he has traveled all over Europe to play for her alone. When he kisses her, however, she demurs, saying that she believes in God and Liszt. Franz then invites her to his attend his recital in Odessa, where, after finishing his performance, he closes the piano and announces that his public career is over. Afterward, Nicholas, aware that Franz is romantically interested in Carolyne, insults the composer. Declaring that Carolyne is heaven's instrument, Franz leaves, after which Carolyne informs her husband that she is going to ask the Czar for permission to divorce. Before departing, Carolyne persuades Franz to accept the position of Music Director of Weimar, a city under the jurisdiction of the Czar's sister, the Grand Duchess. Although the Grand Duchess disapproves of Franz's reputation as a womanizer, she agrees to pressure her brother to grant Carolyne a divorce. Soon after Franz arrives in Weimer, Marie comes to see him, and he informs her that he is going to marry Carolyne. Their conversation is interrupted when the Grand Duchess summons Franz to inform him that the Czar has refused the divorce. After she asks him to meet Carolyne in Vienna, Franz hurries there, even though the city is in the midst of a revolution. Franz takes Carolyne to Hungary to meet his mother, and is surprised to discover that Marie and the children are also there. When Franz steps outside the house to meet an adoring crowd, Marie warns Carolyne that he will never marry her because the audience is his true love. Upon returning to Weimar with Franz, Carolyne offers to turn over all her property to Nicholas in exchange for a divorce. Nicholas finally agrees, but when Franz and Carolyne go to the archbishop to arrange the wedding, the prelate refuses to conduct the ceremony and calls Franz a libertine. Determined to marry Franz, Carolyne decides to travel to Rome to petition the Pope for an annulment, and before leaving, asks Franz to compose a piece of music as her wedding gift. In her absence, Franz composes "Liebestraum," and is rewarded by a letter from Carolyne stating that the Pope has annulled her marriage. Renouncing the stage and "vulgar exhibitionism," Franz travels to Rome, where he publicly plays "Liebestraum" and several other pieces for the first time. On the eve of their wedding, the Russian ambassador requests an audience with the Pope to discuss the annulment. Soon after, the priest who was to marry them delivers a document overturning the annulment on the grounds that Carolyne lied that she was a minor when she married Nicholas. Resolute, Carolyne declares that she realizes they were never meant to wed, and that she was sent to Franz to lead him back to God. Now aware that they will never find happiness together, Franz enters the monastery to seek absolution.