Benjamin Britten wrote the cantata Saint Nicolas, Op. 42, from December 1947 to May 1984 for the centennial celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex. Writing specifically for the resources available to him on this occasion, Britten scored the piece for mixed choir, tenor soloist, four boys, strings, piano duet, organ and percussion. Within this ensemble, the only professional musicians required were the tenor soloist, a string quintet to lead the other strings, and the percussionists. Saint Nicolas marks Britten's first professional work intended primarily for performance by amateur musicians. Now the cantata is frequently performed by youth and amateur ensembles. The duration is given as 50 minutes. While the piece was written for Lancing College, the first performance was actually, with the College's permission, the opening concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival on 5 June 1948, when it was performed in Aldeburgh Church. Britten's dedication reads: "This Cantata was written for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948".
The text of Saint Nicolas was written by Eric Crozier after extensive research into the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Lycia. Crozier's libretto paints a dramatically bold portrait of the saint's character, exaggerating the legends and glory that have accumulated over the centuries around Nicholas's story. Britten's music enhances the drama of Crozier's text using striking contrasts in instrumentation, vocal style, and musical textures.
The Thames Television production, with Ian Partridge singing the title role, won the 1977 Prix Italia.