The Bolshoi's conductor, Vassili Nebolsin, found himself without a suitable new work to open the concert, and contacted Shostakovich just days before. The composer set to work on the overture with great speed, completing it in three days. He apparently based it on Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla overture (1842), and it features the same lively tempo and style of melody. Whilst the style reflects Shostakovich, the piece as a whole uses very conventional classical devices of form and harmony. Some commentators have suggested that the work secretly celebrates the death of Stalin the year before (1953).
The overture begins with a fanfare in the brass, followed by a fast melody in the winds. The strings take up this melody and the piece reaches a climax with a four-note motif. Suddenly, the music reaches a more lyrical melody in the horns and cellos, although the tempo remains the same. Shostakovich develops this material in his typical style, using both themes in counterpoint, before the fanfare returns and leads to a rousing coda.
The work is a standard piece of the orchestral repertoire. The transcription for concert band by Donald Hunsberger is also played by many bands all over the world.
The overture featured in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the 2009 Nobel Prize concert.