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.
The overture begins with a fanfare in the brass, followed by a fast melody in the wind. The strings (in the band version, brass and woodwinds) 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 (in the band version, brass), 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 was used as the opener for the 1985 and 1986 Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps, which included a famous sequence where the horn line marched through a fabric tunnel single file wearing green pants and exited wearing white ones, and as a closer for the 2001 Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps. In addition, the 2007 combined Blue Devils/Santa Clara Vanguard Alumni Drum and Bugle Corps used the opening fanfare section in one of the pieces they played ("Vanguardian Sketches")