Nicanor Zabaleta was one of the foremost harpists of the 20th century, as important to the advancement of the harp as Segovia was to the guitar. At the age of seven, Zabaleta's father, an amateur musician, bought him a harp from an antique shop. The young Nicanor soon began taking lessons from Vincenta Tormo de Calvo, who was on the Madrid Conservatory faculty, and with Luisa Menarguez. At 17, he began studies in Paris; among his teachers there were Marcel Tournier and Jacqueline Borot.
Nicanor Zabaleta made his official concert debut in the French capital in 1926. After a brief stint in the military, he traveled to the USA, where he made his North American debut in 1934 and remained a resident for the next two decades. Two years later, he began concert tours of Cuba and Mexico, where he achieved enough critical acclaim to command substantial fees for his concert appearances. His association with Australian-born American composer/critic Peggy Glanville-Hicks, who was active in organizing concerts of contemporary music in the 1940's and 1950's, further advanced his career in the USA. At a 1950 concert in Puerto Rico, Zabaleta met his future wife Graziela, and they were married two years later. They relocated to Spain and Zabaleta thereafter began touring the major cities of Europe, including Paris, Amsterdam, London, Munich, Copenhagen, and Zürich.
Joaquín Rodrigo arranged his Concierto de Aranjuez as the Concierto Serenata for Nicanor Zabaleta in 1952, and Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera composed Harp Concerto, Op. 25 (1956-1964) for him, which Zabaleta premiered with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965. Nearly 30 other composers from throughout Europe and the Americas wrote works for him, as well. But his repertoire was often more traditional and included works by J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, Mozart, Debussy, and Ravel.
Along with giving numerous solo and orchestral concerts, Nicanor Zabaleta made many recordings, mostly in the 1960's and the decades following. It is estimated that he sold as many as three million records. His later concerts included critical successes at the Theatre Champs Élysées in Paris on March 21, 1981, and in San Jose, CA, on March 12 and 13, where he played concertos by Mozart and Heitor Villa-Lobos. His final concert, on June 16, 1992, in Madrid, was given when he was already in seriously declining health.